09 August 2010

Tea at Trianon: Michelle Obama is Marie-Antoinette?

Tea at Trianon: Michelle Obama is Marie-Antoinette?

Michelle Obama is Marie-Antoinette?

When I first saw the frail comparison of Mrs. Obama to Queen Marie-Antoinette, I thought it too silly to take seriously. However, the silliness seems to have taken over the internet, even sites that I used to respect. Anyone who has ever studied Marie-Antoinette or read even one of the reputable biographies about her will see that there are no similarities between the two women at all, other than being wives of heads of state. Since the comparison is meant to insult the Queen as well as the First Lady, it might be helpful to look at some basic facts.

Marie-Antoinette is once again being portrayed as the Queen who was indifferent to the suffering of the people. However, Marie-Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake." It is not a mere allegation, it is not a matter of speculation. She said nothing of the kind. It was not even a rumor spread about her in her lifetime, but did not start circulating until the nineteenth century. What the Queen did say was: "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."

As a practicing Catholic who assisted at daily Mass, Marie-Antoinette's charities were extensive. In pre-revolutionary France it was for the King and the Queen to give an example of almsgiving. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette took this duty seriously and throughout their reign did what they could to help the needy. During the fireworks celebrating the marriage of the young prince and princess in May 1770, there was a stampede in which many people were killed. Louis and Marie-Antoinette gave all of their private spending money for a year to relieve the suffering of the victims and their families. They became very popular with the common people as a result, which was reflected in the adulation with which they were received when the Dauphin took his wife to Paris on her first "official" visit in June 1773. Marie-Antoinette's reputation for sweetness and mercy became even more entrenched in 1774, when as the new Queen she asked that the people be relieved of a tax called "The Queen's belt," customary at the beginning of each reign. "Belts are no longer worn," she quipped. It was the onslaught of revolutionary propaganda that would eventually destroy her reputation.

The King and Queen were patrons of the Maison Philanthropique, a society founded by Louis XVI which helped the aged, blind and widows. The queen taught her daughter Madame Royale to wait upon peasant children, to sacrifice her Christmas gifts so as to buy fuel and blankets for the destitute, and to bring baskets of food to the sick. Marie-Antoinette started a home for unwed mothers at the royal palace. She adopted three poor children to be raised with her own, as well overseeing the upbringing of several needy children, whose education she paid for, while caring for their families. She brought several peasant families to live on her farm at Trianon, building cottages for them. There was food for the hungry distributed every day at Versailles, at the King's command. During the famine of 1787-88, the royal family sold much of their flatware to buy grain for the people, and themselves ate the cheap barley bread in order to be able to give more to the hungry.

I fail to see the connection between the First Lady's trip to Spain with anything that Marie-Antoinette ever did. For one thing, after traveling to France from Austria at age fourteen to marry the heir to the throne, Marie-Antoinette never traveled anywhere again, except for the futile escape attempt during the Revolution. Otherwise, she never left the environs of Paris and Versailles; she never in her life saw an ocean. It was considered too expensive for the royal family to travel.

As for Mrs. Obama having a European holiday while America is struggling financially, it might not be the most prudent of choices. Nevertheless, the pictures I saw of Michelle and Sasha relaxing on the beach and lunching with the King and Queen of Spain do not seem to me to be examples of extreme decadence. There are plenty of serious issues for which one might critique the Obamas but comparing Michelle to Marie-Antoinette is foolish to say the least.
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