Broadcaster: BBC 2
Review by: Jemma Harbot
This episode of ‘Versailles: Countdown to Revolution’ focuses on the reign of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. However the title of the programme is problematic from a historiographical point of view, due to its emphasis on hindsight. The use of ‘countdown’ suggests that the French Revolution, beginning in 1789, was predetermined before Louis took to the throne.
At first glance I find the programme to have a fairy tale quality that is particularly evident in the ‘Disney-fied’ ‘once upon a time’ introduction, this feeling is heightened by the use of music. A similar fairy tale quality is apparent in the tone of the programme’s conclusion, albeit without the happy ending. Yet, the introduction is useful in informing the viewer about the French monarchy in the earlier eighteenth century. The French dialogue between the characters is concerning because it appears to legitimate conversations that are unlikely to have happened. Likewise the documentary makes Louis, at least initially, appear to have been a decisive ruler, a characteristic that historians rarely bequeath him with. Nonetheless, as is argued in the programme, the Capet family’s inoculation for smallpox does suggest a desire for forward thinking. The programme’s setting is inaccurate because the palace of Versailles was stripped during the later stages of the Revolution. Curators of the palace have made accurate guesses, often by utilising wall art that was rarely removed, to recreate the interior of the palace. Many items of furniture have been rediscovered in weird and wacky places (Warwick Castle boasts Marie Antoinette’s clock). Therefore, this series based on the human relations inside Versailles has an ahistorical backdrop, but this cannot be helped and tourists who visit the palace are victim to the same inaccuracy.
Marie Antoinette is depicted as being a politicised queen, this is a contested point in the historiography with many historians and contemporaries, such as Jacques Revel and Antonia Fraser, mystified as to why Marie Antoinette was not given a more in-depth political education. Concerns about Marie Antoinette’s lack of political education arise due to the matriarchal and politicised life Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa. The failure of Marie Antoinette to fulfil the expected role as Queen of France make the scenes depicting Louis and Marie Antoinette’s relationship improbable (click to see the clip):
The depiction of the royal couple in these scenes suggests that in order for the programme to be ‘accessible’ to a contemporary audience the couple have been portrayed in a modern day partnership. It seems as though the director has based the portrayal on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the so-called ‘Wills & Kate’, this depiction of Louis and Marie Antoinette is unlikely, although not impossible. Contrastingly, the programme does provide an overall accurate depiction of Marie Antoinette’s reputation for parties, glamour, and gambling, the programme illuminates this with examples of seditious pamphlets. However, I feel that the programme could have discussed the content of the pamphlets in greater detail to provide a fuller overview of the pamphlet’s political incentive and to identify the rationale behind the French dislike of Marie Antoinette.
The main reasons for the French attitude towards Marie Antoinette were entrenched ideological prejudice towards Austrian natives. Such prejudices were initially exacerbated by her failure to fulfil the role of queens as a mother (this is discussed briefly, but the programme does overlook how many children the queen had and fails to identify the royal children in the final scenes). Similarly, the programme overlooks the significance of the public reaction to the Dauphin’s death, which was pivotal because it showed a visible disregard for the death of the heir to the throne. In the patriarchal eighteenth century, a public outburst of grief would have been anticipated in response to the Dauphin’s death, instead it passed almost unnoticed. The lack of reaction suggests that the masses were becoming disillusioned with the absolute monarchy largely due to their own suffering from famine. The queen antagonised this feeling through her lavish public spending that was directly juxtaposed in the programme to the brutal conditions of the starving French population. To conclude, the programme includes specialist historians and contemporaries and is thus useful in introducing scholar to the historiography of the last king and queen of France. Similarly, it highlights some key problems in their reign, notably Louis’ indecisiveness, Marie Antoinette’s lavish lifestyle and the growing unrest of the masses.
For more on this topic I would suggest:
- Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette (starring Kirsten Dunst). The film is fairly accurate and was recently graded B for accuracy by All About History, 27 (2015), p. 98. The film is useful because it highlights why the French became disgruntled with the French royal family. It is available on Box of Broadcasts at http://bobnational.net/record/_gRIKwkWFR8xmhBIqIrIeI6 .
- Fraser, A., Marie Antoinette: The Journey (London, 2002).
- Goodman, D., (ed.), Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen (London, 2003).
- Kaiser, T., ‘From the Austrian Committee to the Foreign Plot: Marie-Antoinette, Austrophobia, and the Terror’, French Historical Studies, 26 (2003), 579-617.
- Revel, J., (Goldhammer, A., trans.), ‘Marie Antoinette’ in Furet, F. & Ozouf, M. (eds.), A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (London, 1989), 252-264.
- Spawforth, T., Versailles: A Biography of a Palace (New York, 2008).
- Thomas, C., The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette (New York, 2001).