‘Marie Antoinette’: the true stories behind the BBC/Canal+ drama

By Zara Kesterton@zarakesterton

Warning: Contains spoilers! 

On 29 December 2022, the BBC released its new historical drama about the life of French queen Marie-Antoinette, which was produced in association with Canal+ and written by The Favourite’s Deborah Davis. 

I am currently writing my PhD on fashion during the reign of Marie-Antoinette, so I was intrigued to see how Davis had interpreted this infamous period. The writing team had obviously done their research: some of my favourite anecdotes about life at Versailles in the 1770s and 1780s made their way onto the screen. However, some commentators on Twitter have questioned the chronological liberties that the writers took with history, while others have complained that the show’s claims to present a ‘feminist take’ on the life of the infamous queen are undermined by the invented female rivalries added to the plot.[1]

Inevitably, academics and amateur historians alike struggle not to compare what they see on TV with a series that they would have written, given half the chance. Although I agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the show, I was pleased that it brought to light some less well-known facts about Marie-Antoinette and her court, which you might be surprised to learn are true. Here are my top five.

  1. Madame du Barry’s career path took her from prostitution in Paris to mistress of the King

The woman later known as Madame la Comtesse du Barry was born Jeanne Bécu in Lorraine in 1743. Jeanne moved to Paris as a teenager to become a shop assistant, where – like many poorly paid young women at the time – she used sex work to supplement her income.[2] She soon attracted the notice of the Comte du Barry, who devised a plan to increase Jeanne’s fortunes as well as his own. He introduced her at court, where King Louis XV promptly fell in love with this beautiful young stranger. When rumours circulated that the King’s new mistress had grown up in poverty and (worse still) was unmarried, Du Barry quickly found Jeanne a suitable husband – his younger brother – and invented some noble ancestry for her.[3] Now with a title and a marriage, the Comtesse du Barry (commonly known as Madame du Barry) became the lover and confidante of the King for the rest of his life – much to the shock of Marie-Antoinette.[4]

  1. Marie-Antoinette’s brother really did travel to Versailles from Vienna to give his little sister tips for the bedroom

Believe it or not, the Holy Roman Emperor and Hapsburg co-ruler Joseph II really travelled in disguise to Versailles in 1777 to sort out his younger sister’s sex life. Travelling as ‘Count Falkenstein’ in plain grey clothes, Joseph had been sent on an informal visit to Versailles by his mother to solve the problem of Marie-Antoinette’s marriage, which had not been consummated after seven years. Joseph wrote to his brother describing (in explicit terms) the basic lack of understanding shown by both Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI about marital life.[5] Joseph’s frank conversations with the King and Queen of France seem to have worked. By the end of 1777, Marie-Antoinette was pregnant with her first child.

  1. Marie-Antoinette broke with protocol by allowing her favourite fashion merchant to dress her in private

The ‘Marie Antoinette’ TV series and Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film both show the absurd ritual of getting dressed endured by the young queen. Madame Campan, Marie-Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, described how only the highest-ranking lady in the bedchamber had the right to place the chemise over the royal head. This sometimes led to the queen being left naked and shivering while her ladies organised themselves by rank.[6]When Marie-Antoinette met the fashion merchant Marie-Jeanne (Rose) Bertin, the queen decided that she would much rather be dressed in private.[7] Since Bertin was not a member of the nobility, she was refused entry to the royal bedchamber, and instead dressed the queen in a small closet. This compromise was still considered outrageous by many at Versailles since a non-elite fashion merchant from Paris was being given priority over royal princesses in dressing the queen.[8]

  1. Marie-Antoinette used to visit the opera in disguise

In Episode 5, Marie-Antoinette attends the opera with her brother, wearing a flimsy tulle mask and sitting in an ordinary seat rather than the royal box. She is eventually recognised by the violinist Saint-Georges – a character drawn from history, who was indeed a Black musician from Guadeloupe who played at Marie-Antoinette’s private soirées. In the show, Marie-Antoinette pulls off her ‘disguise’ to surprise and applause from the theatre. Although history does not record the queen wearing tulle masks, she did visit the opera in disguise and was delighted when she was nevertheless recognised and applauded by the audience. French historian Antoine Lilti cites this incident as revealing the double-sided ‘celebrity’ of the queen, which brought her popularity for a time, but eventually contributed towards the downfall of the monarchy.[9]

  1. The famous ship hairstyle? It’s all true

In Episode 8, Marie-Antoinette wears an incredible hairstyle with a ship perched atop to celebrate a major French naval victory against the British in 1778. This famous design was indeed worn by the queen, and was known as La Belle Poule after the ship involved in the battle. It was reproduced in numerous fashion plates and caricatures (see fig. 1) – setting trends, but also emblematic of the queen’s perceived fashion extravagance.[10] Some hairstyles were even more outrageous, however: the duchesse de Chartres was said to have adorned her hair with models of things she loved, including a nurse sat feeding a baby, a parrot, and locks of hair from her husband, father, and father-in-law.[11] I look forward to the day when any costume designer is brave enough to attempt recreating this!

An eighteenth-century engraving showing a woman with a blue, pink, and yellow ship perched on her hairstyle
Figure 1: ‘Coiffure à la Belle Poule’, 1778, from Collection Michel Hennin. Estampes relatives à l’Histoire de France, tome 111, 9728. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Featured image credit:

Emilia Schüle and Louis Cunningham as the Dauphine and Dauphin. BBC / Capa Drama / Banijay Studios France / Les Gens / Canal+ / Caroline Dubois.

[1] Hayley Maitland, ‘A Lavish New TV Series Will Offer A Feminist Take On Marie Antoinette’s Life’, British Vogue, 22 October 2022, https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/marie-antoinette.

[2] Joan Haslip, Madame Du Barry: The Wages of Beauty (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991), 4–7.

[3] Haslip, 26–27.

[4] Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (London: Phoenix, 2002), 79.

[5] Fraser, 186.

[6] Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan, Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie-Antoinette, reine de France et de Navarre : suivis de souvenirs et d’anecdotes historiques sur les règnes de Louis XIV, de Louis XV et de Louis XVI (London: Henri Colburn et Co. et M. Bossange et Co., 1823), 85, http://archive.org/details/mmoiressurlavie03henrgoog.

[7] Campan, 87.

[8] Campan, 83.

[9] Antoine Lilti, The Invention of Celebrity: 1750-1850, trans. Lynn Jeffress (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 170.

[10] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (London: Aurum, 2007), 123.

[11] Louis Petit de Bachaumont et al., Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la republique des lettres en France, vol. 7 (London: John Adamson, 1784), 165, http://archive.org/details/mmoiressecretsp06mairgoog.

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