- The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, and: The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France 1770–1800
How does a woman come to embody the obsessions and anxieties of an era? In the age of Monica Lewinsky and the late Princess of Wales, the answer has become as trite as it is true: it’s the media. This “problematic” press bombards us with fictions and images that eventually, through sheer ubiquity, supersede the reality they claim to represent. The obvious moral of Diana’s death? First: the media kills; la lettre tue. Second—out of a prejudice that has to do with patriarchy, photogenics, or both—journalists most often bring their powers of distortion to bear on women. This is indeed a problem, but perhaps an even greater problem is the fact that this issue demands serious consideration along both theoretical and historical lines—and that such consideration has not been forthcoming among contemporary commentators. The beauty of Chantal Thomas’s The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette is that it treats the issue of one woman’s mythification by the press with theoretical subtlety, contextual precision, and sparkling intelligence. Although Thomas, a superb historian of eighteenth-century French culture, selects a subject from her own field of expertise, her tale of Marie-Antoinette as “tabloid press...heroine” is far-reaching in its implications, relevance, and appeal. It is one of those rare, delightful books in which a distant time and place emerges both in its own full historical specificity, and in compelling similarity to our own.
Famous for tackling such notorious figures as Casanova and Sade, Thomas finds in Marie-Antoinette yet another protagonist of mythic proportions. And it is precisely the “myth of Marie-Antoinette,” rather than some putatively recoverable “biography,” that the author takes as her focus. Like her one-time mentor, Roland Barthes, Thomas displays an enviable knack for uncovering the ideological operations that lay within in the most apparently factual of cultural productions, and for unpacking the rhetorical strategies upon which these operations rely. In this case, Thomas’s primary source material is the massive corpus of pamphlets that proliferated, in both royalist and republican camps, from Marie-Antoinette’s arrival in France in 1770 until her execution in 1793. In “this wild and lewd [textual] fresco” (16), Thomas demonstrates how the Queen was held “to overstep all the limits, to always outdo [sic] herself in frivolousness, indecency, scorn for her husband and squandering of the realm, sexual audacity, and murderous lunacy” (10). Motivated by the twin forces of xenophobia (Marie-Antoinette was Austrian) and misogyny (l’Autrichienne was a more attractive, fun-loving, and thus visibly eroticized woman than any of her recent predecessors), the pamphleteers found reasons for disapproval in the Queen’s every attribute and gesture. They denounced everything from her red hair and elaborate coiffures (“hair that incites hatred” ) to her lavish spending habits, and from her poorly accented French (in 1789, some mocked her for discussing the “taking of the Pastille” ) to her alleged affairs with men, women, and her own children. Often hilarious and always astonishing, these accusations meet with consistently sensitive and thorough analysis under Thomas’ able pen, and coalesce into a portrait of a journalistic machine every bit as formidable as the one that remains with us today.
Informed by a similar methodology, Antoine de Baecque’s The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France 1770–1800 broadens the scope of Thomas’s inquiry to explore how “the deployment of...bodily topoi [in the popular [End Page 314] press]...allowed political society to represent itself at a pivotal moment in history” (4). Like Thomas’s book, de Baecque’s work is marvelously conceived and researched. Sifting through over two thousand pamphlets, treatises, and journals, he shapes their myriad corporeal metaphors into a lucid, convincing account of...