"Let Them Eat Cake" ... Marie Antoinette maligned
I've been doing a fair bit of research on Marie Antoinette lately, a woman who, despite her foibles, friviolities, and frailties, was made the scapegoat of an era, always despised as an outsider (which was in fact the point of most arranged royal marriages), and derided by even her husband's eldest maiden aunt as L'Autrichienne (a mean-spirited pun on "the Austrian" as well as the French word for "bitch," chienne.)
Sure, she was a horrific spendthrift, but so was everyone else at court; and as Queen of France, not only was she expected to set the tone in fashion, but she was supposed to support the kingdom's various factories. "Buy local" was her mandate and so her extravagant purchases of Lyons silks, Alençon lace, and Sèvres porcelain--all of which were emulated by the nobility--was a way of keeping her subjects employed.
Scorn and derision were heaped upon Marie Antoinette's elaborately coiffed head even during her lifetime. It was often repeated that when bread was so scare that there was rioting in the streets, she callously remarked, "If they have no bread, then let them eat cake."
It made the broadsheets, and even the history books, but she never said it. In fact, the origin of the phrase remains in doubt. Although historian Antonia Fraser cites no attribution for her conjecture, she believes the phrase was uttered by another French queen, and another foreigner to boot, the Spanish born wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse, who was said to have remarked that if the peasants had no bread then let them eat the crust (croûte) of the paté. She she never used the word "cake" either (which is gâteau in French).
In book six of his autobiography, The Confessions, the noted philosopher, novelist, and radical, Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to the infamous quote, also without attribution. He wrote:
"Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. J’achetai de la brioche. ", which translates to: "Finally I recalled the worst-recourse of a great princess to whom one said that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche"... [a savory roll often eaten at breakfast; the recipe is full of eggs and butter, and very rich-tasting.]
Although The Confessions was not published until 1782, the book were completed in 1769 when Marie Antoinette was merely a prepubescent Archduchess of Austria. She did not arrive in France until the spring of 1770 when she was all of fourteen years old, a roses-and-cream child whose only desire was to please her adopted family and kingdom. So Rousseau could not possibly have been fingering Marie Antoinette when he referred to "une grande princess."
Marie Antoinette in 1769 when she was 13 or 14 years old; the same year Rousseau finished his Confessions
Marie Antoinette was such a soft touch that she alone of the French royal family refused to trash the peasants' cornfields by riding through them during the hunt. True, in her nearly twenty years of marriage (before her incarceration in the Tuileries after the mob stormed Versailles in July, 1789), she should have ventured out among her people beyond the outskirts of Versailles and the environs of Paris. But she was more aware of the lives of the laborers than one gives her credit for; and, to quote a fairly recent US president, she did feel their pain.
So, even though we're a bunch of history geeks and sticklers on this blog, how do you feel about playing fast and loose with such a well known remark? Let's assume that Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake" (or any permutation of that phrase). Would you attribute the quote to her anyway, for the sake of fiction?
And ... have you ever let the facts not get in the way of a good story, so to speak? When?