Victim of the media

Observations on Marie-Antoinette

Queen Marie-Antoinette has always been associated with scandal. In her lifetime, salacious pamphlets portrayed her as a sexual libertine and, at her trial in 1793, she was accused of sexually abusing her son. So it is no surprise that trailers for Sofia Coppola's biographical film, due out towards the end of October, emphasise rumour, scandal and sex.

Historians have linked scandals about the queen to the outbreak of revolution in 1789, arguing that popular pamphlets helped strip the monarchy of the sacred aura essential to its legitimacy. This "pornographic interpretation", as it has been called, regularly features in treatments of the era.

There is a fundamental problem with this, however, because my own research shows that the timing and purpose of the sexual libels against Marie-Antoinette have been misunderstood. Though some scandalous pamphlets were written about her before the revolution, they were few in number and none of them was available to the public until 1789.

Early scandalous works about Marie-Antoinette emanated from a handful of blackmailers, based mainly in London. Rather than market their works openly, which was dangerous and financially risky, these people preferred to sell their silence to the French government. Royal agents would thus seize or buy entire print runs, and the pamphlets would either be destroyed or placed in the security of the Bastille.

If any libellous pamphlets about the queen did circulate before 1789, they did so in manuscript form and in small numbers at Versailles, where powerful factions sought to undermine her position, marriage and children, as well as France's alliance with Austria (she was Austrian-born).

The first printed libel against Marie-Antoinette, the memoirs of the Countess de la Motte, did not appear until February 1789. A breathtakingly mendacious work, it linked the queen with a tangled conspiracy, also involving the countess and a cardinal, to acquire a fabulous diamond necklace by fraud. According to the countess, besides masterminding the swindle, the queen had also had sexual affairs with both her and the cardinal.

Although the tale was absurd, many readers reportedly found it credible, and some revolutionary politicians even hoped it might precipitate a royal divorce.

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 precipitated a flood of new allegations, as entrepreneurial publishers rapidly printed new editions of old pamphlets that were found stored in the fortress. Among them was a scandalous Historical Essay on the Life of Marie-Antoinette, which went through numerous editions and was translated into English.

That such works had been suppressed by the monarchy seemed to confirm suspicions that the queen had something to hide, and they found a ready market because Marie-Antoinette had already become a hate figure, though for political rather than sexual reasons.

That the allegations were entirely unfounded did not stop her enemies using them against her in their efforts to break the hated alliance with Austria. At her trial, the language and accusations of the pamphlets resurfaced, together with the charge that she had debauched her son.

In this way, sensational pamphlets written before 1789 to extort money from the French crown were used for political purposes during the revolution. But they were not a cause of the revolution. Indeed, but for the revolution, they would probably never have surfaced, and would not have been able to stain Marie-Antoinette's reputation for ever.

Simon Burrows's book "Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution" will be published by Manchester University Press on 30 October. Sofia Coppola's film "Marie Antoinette" goes on general release on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act