In the extensive catalogue of royal foolishness, the entry for Marie Antoinette has always bulged disproportionately large. Consort of the portly and ill–fated Louis XVI, she has been portrayed as the personification of the ancien régime’s self–destructive indulgence and triviality, the pampered fantasist who played at being a ‘shepherdess’ in her Versailles mock village as real rustics starved. In this version, her death on the guillotine in 1793 at the hands of France’s Revolutionary regime was a just comeuppance. Nemesis followed hubris in a life so frivolous as to preclude any proper sense of the tragic.
That guillotine has cast a lengthy shadow over Marie Antoinette’s biographers. Whether they have regarded her as public enemy or royal martyr, they have shared a tendency to be far more interested in the high drama of her life’s denouement – its four years of Revolutionary Sturm und Drang after