Before visiting the grand and glorious Versailles and Marie Antoinette's hamlet, I liked to the think of her as either the “let them eat cake” power-hungry, Cersei Lannister-type monster or the scared, but loyal and deeply misunderstood Queen and mother. When we think of women in history, we tend to group them into these two categories as a subconscious madonna/whore complex. Many times women aren’t given the luxury of being thought of as human with the complications and problematic tendencies that are allotted to men.
I didn’t fully understand the fixation with Marie Antoinette other than her legacy’s similarities with other controversial, beautiful, dead, white women (i.e. Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Anna Nicole Smith). I went to Versailles twice during my trip, once with a friend to lounge around the gardens and once alone to visit the Queen’s hamlet. Although all of Versailles is incredibly extravagant and I wouldn't exactly call the Petit Trianon ‘homely,’ Marie’s area has a distinctly different feel.
Versailles is very much constructed with symmetry and order in mind, the Trianon is less so. As opposed to a grand Palais with rows of perfectly straight trees and topiaries and artfully placed statues, the hamlet has vines growing over gateways, farm animals lazily lounging in the sun and little cottages surrounded by vegetable gardens and fruit trees. [Fun note: visit the Château de Versailles website for the sweetest version of the French Revolution I’ve ever read. “During the Revolution, the Hamlet had quite a rough time.”] In her weird, makeshift paradise, I got some kind of sense of her importance.
I am well aware that the Trianon is reconstructed (once in 1810, 1930, 2006 and ongoing) and just as fake as it once was. It almost reminds me of current celebrities when they attempt to come off as super approachable/relatable. Think Jennifer Lawrence or Anna Kendrick or that odd photo series of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West with their children in some empty middle class looking house. Gwyneth Paltrow has no business telling me how much to spend on groceries.
I overheard from a tour passing by that peasants from the town would be hired to act as peasants in the little village. He explained that since no one at the palace knew how peasants actually lived most of their tools in the 'village' would be plated in gold. For Marie, I hope this was more of an attempt to feel at home in Versailles instead of an attempt to seem more like a peasant. The stars are just like us! Watch them milk cows with golden buckets (1780)! Look at how they go into convenience stores looking terrible (2017)!
Competing versions of Marie’s identity still duel in my mind, and in pop culture. If you haven’t seen the film Start the Revolution Without Me with Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland, go watch it right now. For some reason a comedy starring two Americans bumbling through a horrifically bloody uprising is one of the most important films of my childhood and one of the most quoted in my family. In it, Marie (played nay Billie Whitelaw) is a large-bosomed, smirking seductress, attempting to make alliances with whomever she can get her mouth on (not including her own King husband). This is not necessarily a sympathetic version of her story.
I prefer Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette played by Kristen Dunst. I love this movie for so many reasons (one of them being that King Louis is played by Jason Schwartzman) but most importantly it’s one of the best examples of the female gaze in film. This Marie isn’t necessarily good or bad, she’s just human. She is cruel to Madame Du Barry, tentative to her husband, outgoing with her friends, nervous with her family, loving with her children, flirtatious to her suitors. She’s given all the depth and substance that she deserves. I think maybe it’s arrogant of us to assume that Marie was an air headed damsel and that’s why I appreciate these versions of her. I like the strong female villain as opposed to the impotent, incapable Marie as she is frequently portrayed.
Although her garden is lovely in almost every meaning of the word, it almost feels as if it’s cursed. Another one of those things I like to bring up to people in parties when I’m uncomfortable is the curse of the pharaohs. This is an alleged curse that is put on someone if they disturb the tomb of an ancient Egyptian, specifically a pharaoh. The idea of the actual ‘curse’ had been around since the 6th century to ward off certain priests and protect the spiritual purity of the tombs.
The idea of the curse became popular around the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb with the deaths of members of Howard Carter’s team shortly after opening the grave. The deaths range from infected mosquito bite, suicide, smothering, gunshot wound, and mysterious illness to, in Carter’s case, lymphoma. However, no curse is actually found in King Tut’s tomb but there are plenty of other cases. Carter’s team and other sufferers of the curse were haunted by nightmares of dead Egyptians, visions of scarabs, jackals and cobras, deaths of loved ones. In all fairness, most of the people who have been in this tomb have lived healthy and happy lives.
If you’re interested, you should do some more research on the curse because it’s genuinely wild. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes’s creator/dad) at the full height of his mysticism phase was obsessed with this story and told everyone the deaths were caused by “elementals.” It also opens up an interesting conversation into the ownership of artifacts and whether excavating a pharaoh is archeology or grave robbing. I prefer to think that this was more a product of some good old fashioned post-colonial white guilt for the British stealing artifacts that clearly don’t belong to them. All of the same, the idea of the curse is both slightly ridiculous and mildly terrifying. I’m not the type to believe in that sort of thing but that’s what it feels like here in the Queen’s garden.
Although it’s fake, once you hear the history of the area (whether from a passing tour guide with a thick French accent or an incredibly long wikipedia page) it’s kind of spooky here. This isn’t to say that I or any other visitor to Versailles is going to be seeing visions of headless Louis and Marie, but in a way it feels like sacred ground. Unlike the pharaohs, I don’t believe Marie thought much of her afterlife, but she hoarded possessions as if she was a Pharaoh. If you trade incredibly uncomfortable looking shoes, poker chips and excessive pink satin gowns with mummified cats, their own organs dried and sealed in elaborate jars and religious amulets, it’s a similar process.
In the end, it’s easy to interpret her an proto-Melania Trump, or a power hungry Lady Macbeth. Keep in mind that she was 14 when she was married to Louis. She was a mother who suffered a miscarriage and watched two of her children die at strikingly young ages. She was a widower who had to stand trial while her son was forced to make false claims of incest, bribery and treason against her, ultimately condemning her to death. She was a woman who was driven to her execution in an open cart as crowds insulted her and cheered her assassination. She was royalty who allegedly apologized for stepping on her executioner’s foot before being beheaded and thrown into an unmarked grave.
She was a woman whose place was used to please nations and men, and secure alliances. She was a woman that despite her privilege and power was obviously used as a scapegoat for a much larger political and democratic problems in France. Misunderstood or not, sitting here in her garden you know she was human and that’s both beautiful and terrifying enough.