Eric Konigsberg: Marie Antoinette, Citoyenne

Roundup: Talking About History

SHE may never have said the words that got her in Bartlett’s — “Let them eat cake” — but she might as well have. Nevertheless, the image of Marie Antoinette — dauphine, villain, tea-party thrower in shepherdess garb — is in the midst of an extreme rehab.

What with Sofia Coppola’s movie, two sympathetic books (“Queen of Fashion,” a biography by Caroline Weber, and “Abundance,” a work of historical fiction by Sena Jeter Naslund); and a PBS documentary, we’re having a Marie Antoinette moment. And she doesn’t even have a publicist.

The question, then, might be less a matter of what to make of Marie Antoinette, than of why the makeover, and why now? Of all the victimizers in history, why are we suddenly flooded with these new narratives that show us Marie Antoinette — vain, selfish, solipsistic and venal — as a victim?

The simplest answer may be that most Americans don’t have even the flimsiest grasp of who she was.

“Never underestimate our historical illiteracy,” says the historian Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton explored the Founding Fathers’ disagreements over the excesses of the French Revolution. “Unburdened by an existing context through which to view her life, it becomes much easier to see her simply as a captive of the monarchy and a captive of her own celebrity.”

Even in the packaging, the current depictions paint Marie Antoinette — the most significant target of a most significant populist revolt — as herself a revolutionary.

“Her required wardrobe included 12-foot wide hoopskirts,” reads the jacket copy of Ms. Weber’s book. “But when she became queen, Marie Antoinette rebelled, seeking to establish her own royal style as a way to seduce the public (and distract attention from her failure to conceive).”

The cover flap of “Abundance” describes her as “a heroine of inspiring stature, one whose nobility arises not from the circumstance of her birth but from her courageous spirit.” And the lettering on the advertisements for Ms. Coppola’s movie — on crudely cut hot-pink banners — recall the cover of the Sex Pistols’ album “Never Mind the Bollocks.” (God save the Queen, anyone?)

Americans’ relationship to rebellion, in any case, is more complicated than you might think. “It was thought of as an attractive concept through much of the 20th century,” Mr. Chernow says. “But at the moment, we’re living in the aftermath of many failed revolutions — Communism and Fascism come to mind — and with the conspicuous exception of the jihadists, people are more attuned to the excesses of revolution.”

Robert H. Frank, the Cornell economist whose books include “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess,” says that although the gap between the rich and the rest of us has only widened over the last 35 or 40 years, “Americans aren’t known for great class resentment toward the wealthy....

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