But I still have my Kindle. I am immersed in a nineteenth-century biography of Marie Antoinette by Charles Duke Yonge, having already read Madame Campan's Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Why is it that the queen seems to be the very epicenter of the French Revolutionary whirlwind? Perhaps because I read books about her. If I condescended to read books about Danton, perhaps he would seem the very epicenter of the French revolutionary whirlwind.
And was she an "ordinary woman," as Stefan Zweig called her, totally unable to cope with the disasters at the end of her life? (Could anyone?) Or was she quite astute, only tragically thrust onto a ridiculous stage by an accident of birth, and then surrounded, seemingly mid-performance, by a gang of thugs and fools who very much and very simply wanted to kill her? In 1787 she wrote of changes in French politics to her friend, the Duchesse de Polignac, vacationing in England:
The words 'opposition' and 'motions' are established here as in the English Parliament, with this difference, that in London, when people go into opposition, they begin by denuding themselves of the favors of the king; instead of which, here numbers oppose all the wise and beneficent views of the most virtuous of masters, and still keep all he has given them. It may be a clever way of managing, but it is not so gentleman-like. The time of illusion is past, and we are tasting cruel experience. We are paying dearly to-day for our zeal for and enthusiasm for the American war ....
To me this does not sound like the helpless, befeathered, sleepy-eyed flibbertigibbet of the Vigee-Lebrun portraits, nor does it fit in with the sort of popular half-knowledge which understands Marie Antoinette as somehow really ancillary to the whole exciting business, but anyway deserving of her fate because she was rich, or idle, or ignorant, or titled, or a woman. Then again, it's possible that the people around her at the time knew perfectly well she was not a helpless flibbertigibbet, but rather an anti-revolutionary conspirator looking for help from her foreign and imperial relations, and lying about it, up to the very end. This was treason, though to her, queen and daughter of an empress, it was clear she had every right to bring her riotous and misguided people back to "calmness." "What is going on in France," she wrote, "would be an example too dangerous to other countries, if it were left unpunished."
And here we are, two days after Bastille Day. Still apparently unpunished. But I must go on reading.