The celebrated love-life of Marie-Antoinette did not spark the French revolution, according to a new book on scandalous pamphleteers in which historian Simon Burrows takes issue with scholarship and mythology surrounding the tragic Queen.
Stories about the extravagant and frivolous lifestyle of Marie-Antoinette – including allegations that she took lovers of both sexes - are widely asserted by historians to have helped precipitate the revolution of 1789. This view is so ingrained that Sofia Coppola's new film about the Austrian-born queen, who famously lost her head on the guillotine, is being marketed as an account of 'the party that led to the revolution'.
But Dr Burrows has uncovered considerable evidence that salacious and defamatory pamphlets about Marie-Antoinette became available only once the revolution was underway. "Early scandalous works against the queen emanated from a small group of blackmailer-pamphleteers, based mainly in London," Dr Burrows said.
(Above) Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman)"They preferred to sell their silence to the French government than to market their works openly, which was dangerous and financially risky. So the pamphlets were usually bought and destroyed en masse by royal agents." Unfortunately for Louis XVI and his wife, a few copies were filed in the Bastille. When the fortress-cum-prison was stormed in July 1789, the pamplets were found, rapidly reprinted and distributed widely.
"By this time, Marie-Antoinette had become a hate-figure for political reasons," Dr Burrows said. "She was castigated for lavish spending as France faced bankruptcy, and suspected of plotting to crush the revolution. Moreover, by 1791, her brother the Austrian emperor was leading calls for the European powers to intervene inside France."
"The scandalous pamphlets found a ready-market - although their sexual allegations against the Queen were, needless to say, entirely untrue. This did not stop sexual slanders being used as ammunition against Marie-Antoinette, initially to support calls for a royal divorce, and then at her trial in 1793, during which she was even accused of sexually molesting her son while in prison."
Dr Burrows' book Blackmail, scandal and revolution is published on October 30 by Manchester University Press. Sofia Coppola's film Marie-Antoinette, which divided critics at Cannes Film Festival, who both booed and gave it a standing ovation, is released in the UK on 20 October.
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