If you learned one thing about Marie Antoinette in school it was probably this: she was an extravagant flake who partied while her people starved, and she lost her head for it in 1793 when the Revolution came. The “Let them eat cake” story is often used to prop up this image of the Queen as frivolous and out of touch: when told that her people were starving for want of bread, Marie is said to have nonchalantly replied, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—in other words, that the poor should just chill out and try some cake (well, brioche, anyway, which is rich, eggy bread) instead. The story was trotted out yet again last week to describe the financiers sipping champagne and sneering at the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors in New York City.
The first problem with the “Let them eat cake” story is that it’s chronologically impossible. It dates back to the Confessions of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who attributes it to a “a great princess.” But Rousseau wrote those words in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was only nine years old. Unless Rousseau had a time machine, Marie Antoinette couldn’t have been the princess he was thinking of.
The second problem with the story is that it’s unfair to Marie—who, many historians now argue, wasn’t really a bad sort. Sure, she liked to dance and gamble and dress up, especially when she was young, but soon grew out of her “Girls Gone Wild” phase. For most of her life, she was a modest teetotaler who tried to reform the licentious excesses of the French court, and gave liberally to the poor. In 1770, she and the king decided to give up a year of their income; it was donated to a fund for the victims of a tragic stampede that had killed 800 Parisians at a fireworks celebration earlier that year. She later adopted three poor children that she raised herself, and cared for many other peasant families. And in the famine of 1787, she sold the royal silver to buy grain for her people, while serving her own family the same coarse barley bread that the poor ate. No cake for her - not that it did her any long-term good in the court of public opinion.