A great many people have an opinion two hundred and fifty years later. She almost surely did not suggest that starving peasants without bread should eat cake. She did not buy a hugely expensive necklace and try to cover this up. She was, especially by the end of her life, an extraordinarily pious Catholic. Was she frivolous? A good Queen? In league with her relatives in Austria? The noble lady lauded by Burke? Or the fast-living almost-modern portrayed in several movies?
I am not a historian and would not dream to answer any of these questions. Having read a book today about her mother, siblings, and her own life, I think she does teach something to all of us.
She certainly does not teach us to be Queen of France! She may teach us how to face very difficult times.
Where there does seem to be historical consensus, and I can only trust the consensus of historians, that regardless of the merits of her politics or the nature of her lifestyle as Queen, from the moment she faced down a mob at Versailles she behaved with courage and dignity. I cannot judge the attempted escape or the political impact of her letters to families, but she was unafraid and adapted to ever worsening conditions with little complaint. She loved her children and made their lives as good as she could and gave her poor husband a good bit of the dignity he came to have by the end.
Nobody questions that she faced her tormentors in an hours long sham trial with wit and patience. She was immediately transported to the guillotine. All agree, even her great critics, that she died as all of us would wish to die-with nobility. She looked to God having been failed by everyone else . . .including perhaps herself.
If she brought her problems on herself or if she was mostly slandered and little to blame for fall of the monarchy is the subject of massive amounts of scholarly work.
She used her very difficult times to become better than she had been. Hard times got rid of the frivolity and returned her to the sterner lessons of her mother, the fabulous Empress Marie Theresa. Like more than a few, Marie Antoinette died better than she lived. Her fall exposed the better side of her nature.
This does not justify the indignities she suffered, but does show good came from what others meant for evil. Frivolity, entertainment, and philosophic amusements are not much good when things go wrong.
We are not, God helping us, as Americans in this twenty-first century generally going to face such a reversal of fortunes as the Queen of France. What can we learn?
Death can come unexpectedly.
This pandemic time has taken the lives of over one hundred thousand Americans. They came to the ultimate test, the moment of death. All of us will face death whether in the pandemic or in a later time. We cannot have an irrational fear of death, because death is coming regardless of what we do.
As death drew closer, and then became a certainty, the Queen fell back on the ancient truths, the eternal things, that had always served as a comfort, an explanation, and a hope. She trusted in God, the promise of heaven, and the power of grace. She died forgiving her enemies. Her earlier life had, especially before she had children, conspired to tempt her with endless amusements, yet in her era, sickness and suffering were never far away.
The eternal things were a consolation.
Let us all be reminded to go to our prayers in good times and bad. Tribulations come and go, but the church endures.
If we associate ourselves with God’s kingdom, then when we go from this life, we will endure in a life to come.
Most of us do not face the dramatic reversal of fortune that the Queen lived. We will never live in a Versailles fawned on by thousands only to end up executed for the amusement of the public. Millions of us face economic reversals, naturally, many very painful, but not (God willing!) so extreme.
The Queen, I think, could bear this change with such equanimity, because she (very imperfectly) had lived a life of charity. Even if court customs and her own failures caused her to squander more than she gave, and I cannot judge this, the Queen had been raised to give, to look after the poor, to engage in charitable works. In her early womanhood, when first coming to France, she appears to have forgotten this a bit, but raising children reminded her of duty.
Again, I am not assuming this was so much, sufficient, or tips some scale of justice in her favor. She was a participant in a socially unjust society, but the charity was not nothing. She was sincere in her giving and her motives were to do good.
The good we do, always too little, is strength for our souls, a hidden superstructure, that if all the superficial were stripped away, might help us endure. In captivity, the Queen gradually lost all power to harm, but retained the charitable impulse.
We can give to others in good times and retain this practice in hard times. If we are unable to leave our homes, then we can love and serve those in our homes. We can practice kindness. All of us can serve and give. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and remained generous, giving from the little they had.
This helps us retain our dignity in hard times.
We should give as best we can even when we have little to give.
What to do in a crisis?
Return to eternal things, especially if they were a given to us in our childhoods. Practice charity with kindness. Be calm, doing our duty with dignity. God helping us, we can use a crisis to become better than we have been.
Like Queen Marie Antionette.