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On Spending and Ignorance :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

On Spending and Ignorance

One of the main complaints of the French during the reign of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was her costly lavish lifestyle. The association of Marie Antoinette with royal French debt garnered her the nickname, Madame Deficit. While it is undeniable that she lived the life of a Queen, and enjoyed indulgence in glamorous dress and occasions, the Deficit name should have been placed on the royal family as a whole. The Madame Deficit character was promoted by songs, posters and caricatures hung up on the streets of France (Gruder 270).

Royal courts in other countries were not living considerably less-glamorous lifestyles. Much of the debt incurred by the royal family at this time should be attributed to members other than the Queen. While her dress for many occasions was costly and extravagant, the dress of her husband was no less lavish. Louis XVI had to commission a new crown to be made, costing 6000 livres, when it was discovered that his father’s crown would be too small (Fraser 152). The other members of the royal family also each requested lavish individual living estates, rather than living together as a family. These excessive living arrangements by the royal family would be no less costly than the paradise village, Petit Trianon, which Marie Antoinette built for her infrequent moments of solitude.

The suspected ignorance of the Queen’s spending habits was notoriously culminated in the phrase, “let them eat cake”. The story circulating was that when asked how she could validate continual spending while the impoverished French commoners had no bread to eat, she responded that if there was no bread, then let them eat cake. The critical public could easily feed off of this speculated response, taking to its validity without much thought. These critics ignored the fact that this phrase had been circulating before Antoinette even arrived in France as a young bride. This parasitic phrase had been ascribed to Spanish princess Marie Thérèse, along with many other aunts of the royal family before it stuck to Marie Antoinette, giving convincing proof for her innocence in this matter (Fraser 153).

“Let them eat cake” became associated with the distance and ignorance of the French crown to the people, a feeling that spurred thoughts of revolution within the French. This phrase unfortunately still seems to be stuck to Antoinette in the eyes of the uninformed modern people fascinated by her image.

In contrast to the public’s perception of Antoinette’s idea of the poor, she is documented as writing, “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness” (Fraser 153). It is clear from her actions as Queen that Marie Antoinette was more in sync with the problems of the poor than her French royal peers.

The distaste for the Queen’s spending habits was amplified when it was discovered that she had a love for gambling. This, along with the elaborate headdresses she chose to wear and her love for diamonds, were the basis of the exaggerated claims.

A still from Sofia Copolla's 2001 film of Marie Antoinette's life, emulating her perceived lavish and unsympathetic lifestyle

A still from Sofia Copolla’s 2001 film of Marie Antoinette’s life, emulating her perceived lavish and unsympathetic lifestyle

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