Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 28, 2000
Chantal Thomas The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette Trans Julie Rose MIT Press, 1999. 255 pp.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth $26.00 (0942299396)

Witness the arrest of Marie-Antoinette as image in the stark drawing by Jacques-Louis David that cuts the Queen’s last vestige of luxury, a pair of black silk shoes we are told she wore in defiance to the guillotine, down to the barest gashes. That which Terry Castle diagnoses as “Marie-Antoinette obsession” [The Apparitional Lesbian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)] infuses these ancien régime material objects, associated with the doomed Queen, with a particular charge. A decade of scholarship, informed in various ways by feminist theory and queer commentary, challenges us to rethink any easy dismissal of the objects of maligned fascination that make up our view of the “Trinket Queen” or “Tribade of Trianon”—the milk buckets of Richard Mique and Hubert Robert’s Hameau at Versailles and the portraits by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun commissioned by the Queen, the anonymous pamphlets such as The Royal Bordello, and such satiric prints of Marie-Antoinette as the “Hooker-Hen of Austria.” These competing representations of and substitutes for an ever-elusive “real” Marie-Antoinette lead us to the centrality of desiring investments in the material culture of print and circulating objects, and the dream or nightmare images they generated to the French revolution as event and the attempted regulatory ordering of erotics in the re-invention of the French state and empire.

The 1999 translation by Julie Rose of The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette makes available to English language readers Chantal Thomas’s important anatomization of the effigy of Marie-Antoinette produced by the popular press. Originally published for the bicentennial of the French Revolution with the subtitle “Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets,” the title change emphasizes Thomas’s effort to undermine any facile identification between the historical Marie-Antoinette of Lorraine-Austria and her evil twin in representation by focusing on the production of the awesome monster as, in the terms of Roland Barthes (once Thomas’s thesis supervisor and her acknowledged inspiration), a “myth” with its own internal logic of excess—that of the “ever worse.”

Five escalating chapters trace the trajectory of how this monstrous body double fused with the flesh of the Queen; how the rhetoric of the insatiable and devouring “sex machine” came to act on the Queen’s carnal body. Thomas’s study of the power of certain forms of representation to actualize their own phantasmic imagery counters the mythic structuring of the monster image of “wicked queen,” forged equally by Royalist and Revolutionary representations, with Thomas’s own deft juxtapositions. To interrupt the naturalizing repetition of the story of the libertine, which ends with the debauched soul revealed in a decayed face, Thomas inserts another possible double life in which Marie-Antoinette joins a Commedia dell’Arte troupe and plays Harlequin as her effigy falls to the guillotine. Opposing the fatal logic of the bloodthirsty Hydra-Antoinette whose insatiability is both the end and cause of the Revolution’s bloodshed, Thomas undoes the closure of her chapter on the female monster with a less familiar historical image of the woman who bleeds, the Queen who cannot stop her periods. This inventive structuring of argument through images makes one wish for readings that would connect the pamphlets (some of which featured engravings) and the satiric prints invoked in the introduction but not analyzed here. However, the few reproductions of prints and other material objects such as the photograph of Marie Antoinette’s satin shoe do assist Thomas’s technique of often startling image juxtaposition, estranging the taken-for-granted sense of the evil caricature.

Chapter two, “The Incorrigible,” gives us the Marie-Antoinette who supposedly failed to read and who isolated herself from an outside world by taking refuge in her Trianon garden, represented as yet further removed even from the court. In contrast, the book’s central chapter “Queen of Fashion” presents us with a Marie-Antoinette who commands the staging of an alluring image, at once seductive and repulsive, of a Queen who is “good and beautiful” to the extent that she responds to the dictates of the ephemeral and changing moment in her flights of fashionable dress and make-up and her spontaneous effusions of charity. Whether or not Marie-Antoinette literally responded to specific pamphlets or satiric prints, the Queen’s manipulation of the possibilities of patronage makes it hard to see the relation between the Queen and the press as that of an oblivious “real” Marie-Antoinette stalked by her mythological effigy in history as horror film. Rather, the conflict, for example, between the auratic beasts sculpted by gossip at court—beginning with Marie-Antoinette’s pregnancy in 1777 and the Queen’s commissions of portraits by Vigée-Lebrun that entered the public fray with their exhibition at the Salon du Louvre [cf. Mary Sheriff’s The Exceptional Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)]—might be characterized instead as that of myth- and counter-myth-making. In this way, we might extend Thomas’s work on the perverse life of objects, the psycho-sexual investments that make items of material culture (such as the scrap of the Queen’s dress cherished by the orator of the Constituent Assembly Josèphe Barnave and taken with him to the guillotine) scintillating totems to those examples of Marie-Antoinette’s own patronage that have become the seemingly endless and unforgettable reserve of jokes about the white queen—the Hamlet at Versailles, the “portrait en chemise,” and the dairy at Rambouillet. Though they may have failed to stop the flow of what Thomas calls in her final chapter the “chant of loathing,” these works produced at the command of the “Queen of Fashion,” nonetheless, registered publicly as mythical icons equal in their “phantasmatic power” to that of the pamphlets’ “female monster.”

While The Wicked Queen has been updated to reflect a few major studies produced in the decade since its publication in French, notably absent are the contributions from gay and lesbian studies ( Thomas’s chapter cataloguing the composite features of “The Female Monster” includes the seduction of women as merely one more “stroke of depravity” in the press’s invention of a Medusa to behead, a reigning gorgon of a “lesbian plot” to join France with the other two empires then controlled by women (Maria Theresa of Austria and Catherine II of Russia). The making of Marie-Antoinette the monster, Thomas argues, differed from the slander targeted at the foreign regents and consorts Anne of Austria and Marie de’ Medici only to the extent that the monstrations of Marie-Antoinette actualized their fantasized violence. However, Elizabeth Colwill’s study of the figure of Marie-Antoinette-as-tribade in French revolutionary pornography [“Pass as a Woman, Act like a Man,” in Homosexuality in Modern France, ed. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)] for example, demonstrates that what was new about the charges against Marie-Antoinette was precisely the representation of the queen as “tribade,” an agent of gender and sexual disturbance in her appearance of arch-femininity and her assumption of masculine privilege in her passionate attachments to women. The lethal effectiveness of this new construction of the criminality of queens asks us to reconsider what Louis Crompton has called the “myth of lesbian impunity.”

On the danger posed to the state by queens, Thomas cites, among other pamphlets, Louise Robert’s 1791 Les Crimes des reines de France which imagines that “from deep within their boudoirs,” “these crowned sirens” will rule over “the marching of armies, the fate of colonies”(97). A decade’s worth of studies influenced by postcolonial theory, makes the phrasing hard to ignore. Beginning as Thomas does with Barthes’s well-known reading of how the Paris-Match cover featuring a young black man saluting the French flag works to reduce its material to an ideogram signifying only “France is a great empire,” one wonders about what would happen if we were to analyze, within the larger context of empire, what Thomas argues was the unifying power of a monstrous Marie-Antoinette. Marie-Antoinette’s influence on the vogue for cotton dresses, which almost destroyed the silk industry, and the satiric representation of the Queen as a harpy monster at once emerging from and banished to South America are only two examples of material in the contest of myth- and counter-myth-making that question the assumed fixity of the European boundary.

But these are ultimately the lines of inquiry that compellingly crafted studies push us to pursue. And the translations of seven of the rare pamphlets covering the period from 1779 to 1793, published in this new edition with biographical identifiers for their casts of characters and a select chronology of Marie-Antoinette’s life, will give ready access to the materials for further revision.

Jill H. Casid
Assistant Professor of Visual Culture Studies, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison