Let them eat cake? The process of re-discovering Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette was the controversial and tragic French queen who was one of many victims of the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Her life fascinates me, and I feel that she’s often misrepresented in history, or should I say, historical depictions of her aren’t quite as accurate as they could be. Haven’t we all heard the stories of a cruel queen who shouted “Let them eat cake!” when told that French peasants were starving because they had no bread to eat?

Here’s the good news: most historians will tell you that there is no evidence that suggests she said this, or anything like it. It’s because of myths like these that Marie Antoinette is a character who has interested me for awhile now. I have read a couple of interesting books about her and the period in general, but I would like to learn a little more. So here is my (lengthy, apologies!) step-by-step guide to navigating online sources regarding Marie Antoinette.

First and foremost (and I realize this is very cliché) I would check out Wikipedia to see what the famous online encyclopedia has to say about her. For someone who has no idea who Marie Antoinette was, Wikipedia is a great starting place to find some general information about who she was. Wikipedia is also the first website that comes up when I Googled her name; very convenient for our purposes! What I like to do when I use Wikipedia is to skim the article, then check the sources. The sources that Wikipedia authors cite are often a very useful next step. In this case, the author who is most frequently cited is Antonia Fraser’s work Marie Antoinette: The Journey. (Coincidentally, I have personally read this book and can wholly recommend it to anyone with any interest in this topic.) However, this is a book, and if we look down at the other sources, we will see that they are all books as well. Looking a little further in the “External Links” section of the page, I see some sites that could be useful. Here we go.

The first site I would visit, based on Wikipedia’s recommendations, is the Story of Marie Antoinette with Primary Sources. This looks promising, and at the very least it should offer some online primary sources to use. Upon entering the site, we see that it provides a nice overview of her life, with many excellent pictures to illustrate many aspects of her life. There are direct quotes, and many are cited to be from the Fraser book that was frequently cited in the Wikipedia article. One problem with this site that I immediately see is that although many quotes from the queen are used to support ideas, the site doesn’t say exactly where they were found. However, in the last page, entitled Used and Recommended Sources, a little more information is given about the sources used, but by no means does it give enough detail.

Next, I would head to Marie Antoinette Online, a site recommended by Wikipedia, and one that admittedly has a sympathetic bend to it. This is an immediate warning that there will be bias, but since bias exists everywhere, it’s worth having a look at. This is a pretty good source. It appears to be a blog written by numerous authors that touches on some common myths about Marie Antoinette, such as her overly extravagant lifestyle, that aren’t entirely true. A Reputation in Shreds touches upon the idea that Sofia Coppola’s Film Marie Antoinette has further damaged the reputation of the queen in the eyes of the public. (Sidenote: Coppola’s film isn’t great by any means, but it does show an amazing visual display of what Versailles would have looked like at the time, often shooting scenes in the palace itself.)

I followed one of the links on this webpage to one of the authors’ webpage whose name is Elena Maria Vidal. I see that she is the author of two historical-fiction books based on Marie Antoinette and that she has completed lots of research on the queen, making her appear to be a reliable source. Furthermore, she offers more blurbs about the queen on her website, and even hosts a YouTube video showing an interview with her discussing Marie Antoinette. She talks about some of the common myths surrounding the queen and shows that she has done some considerable research in the area. In further researching the author, I found that she has some other websites, most notably an interesting blog called Tea at Trianon, which features lots of information about Marie Antoinette’s children, an obviously important aspect of the queen’s life, and other related topics in her life.

One of the links recommended by Wikipedia was on LibraryThing, which shows that Marie Antoinette’s personal library is available online. When looking through the site, I can see that it offers many titles and letters, but unfortunately, they are all in French. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be an issue for those who have a reading understanding of French, but it is a little off-putting when there is probably a place where these resources have been translated for us! So in general, yes this is a great website, but could pose language barriers for some.

Heading back to Google, I narrowed down my search to more specific words, such as “Marie Antoinette education resources”, I was able to find a webpage called Famous People: Marie Antoinette that has links to dozens of great related sites, including maps, speeches, and other different forms of media.

In another search, I found a website that is called The World of Royalty that hosts what looks to be an online book about Marie Antoinette. While the book seems to be okay, the unprofessional layout of the website alarms me a little and makes me question its validity. Aesthetically, it’s tacky, but more importantly, the book that readers can look at has no author anywhere to be found on the page. It also advertises places where people can buy their very own Marie Antoinette fashion wigs and other paraphernalia that makes the website seem questionable and less than scholarly.

One thing that I personally find striking about Marie Antoinette is her fashion and style. A lot of this is could be myth, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m going to go back to Google and see what I can find if I add the word “fashion” to a search with her name in it. After looking at many useless titles advertising Marie Antoinette Halloween costumes (the scantily clad versions, of course), I see a great article from Slate magazine called What Marie Antoinette Really Wore, written by Anne Hollander. It’s largely about what she wore and reasons for doing so, pointing out that she was indeed rather fashion-forward for her time.

My recommended final step that I would take in researching Marie Antoinette would be to start looking through the online scholarly journals, like JSTOR. I love JSTOR, mostly because I always seem to find a lot of helpful articles that are interesting and definitely reputable. One thing I must say about searching on JSTOR: use the advanced search option! It will save you many frustrated searches from using just the basic search; trust me, I’ve been there. Many times. One negative thing about JSTOR that could be problematic is that someone who doesn’t have a subscription wouldn’t be able to access it, but for most university students, this isn’t an issue. I would also look to Google Books to see if there are any titles that might be helpful and fully available online. Finally, I would check out Amazon. You could use it to find other books related to the topic of Marie Antoinette and input those titles into a search engine to see if any of them are online.

I really hope I’ve given any newcomers to the subject a good starting point on researching Marie Antoinette online. I believe that the best thing to do is to give yourself a general overview of the subject, then pick things to focus on about her life that personally interest you. In my case, it’s the fashion and social aspect of Marie Antoinette’s life that I really enjoy. Best of luck!

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One thought on “Let them eat cake? The process of re-discovering Marie Antoinette

  1. Pingback: Film Review: The Queen of Versailles | This Public Historian

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