I have many times been accused of making Marie-Antoinette into a saint. Just because I believe, as most of the evidence indicates, that Marie-Antoinette was faithful to her husband, does not mean I think she was the Little Flower. Endeavoring to observe the sixth commandment is a basic duty which does not mean automatic sanctity. We all know many faithful spouses who are not saints (at least, not yet.) The New Advent article presents a fairly balanced view of Marie-Antoinette:
In her private life, Marie Antoinette may justly be blamed for her prodigality, for having, between 1774 and 1777 — by certain notorious escapades (sleigh racing, opera balls, hunting in the Bois de Boulogne, gambling) and by her amusements at the Trianon — given occasion for calumnious reports. But she confessed to Mercy that she indulged in this dissipation to console herself for having no children; and the tales of Besenval, Lauzun, and Soulavie, about the amours of Marie Antoinette, cannot stand against the testimony of the Prince de Ligne: “Her pretended gallantry was never any more than a very deep friendship for one or two individuals, and the ordinary coquetry of a woman, or a queen, trying to please everyone.” De Goltz, the Prussian minister, also wrote that though a malicious person might interpret the queen’s conduct unfavourably there was nothing in it beyond a desire to please everybody. Besides, the queen continued to give edification by her regular practice of her religious duties….
Her historian, M. de la Rocheterie, says of her: “She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart, until she became a martyr.”
The “notorious” escapades of sleigh-riding, going incognito to the opera ball, hunting and watching the horse races in the Bois de Boulogne, were fairly innocent past-times for a twenty year old queen. The gambling, however, became a serious addiction. It must be kept in mind, however, that she was not the not the only one. Gambling was an entrenched part of court life from the days of Louis XIV. As scholar Ross Hamilton describes it:
Gambling obsessed all levels of French society during the Enlightenment. Louis XIV held appartements du roi given over to gambling three times a week at Versailles, the queen hosted a nightly game, and courtiers scheduled additional occasions for play. Hosts so frequently acted as bankers for games to entertain their guests that satirists, chroniclers, and moralists complained that compulsive gambling had destroyed other forms of social entertainment. In Paris ten authorized maisons de jeux operated games involving some degree of skill (jeux de commerce) but essentially they served as fronts for more lucrative chance-driven games (jeux de hasard). Gambling also took place at the two great Paris fairs during almost four months of the year, all year long at foreign embassies, and eventually at gambling houses at the Hotel de Gesvres and later at the Hotel de Soissons. In addition to these legal venues, the large number of clandestine Parisian gaming rooms, lighted by tripots, made one visitor comment that “flaming pots set Paris ablaze,” and gambling was by no means restricted to Paris. (2) The “Age des Lumieres” was lighted by gambling. Although official prohibitions referred to both religious and sociological dangers from gambling, within the context of the period, risking large sums at play became an analogy for risking one’s life in battle. Having the courage to risk and winning or losing with equal equanimity demonstrated indifference to material gain and thus served as a means of displaying hereditary status.
Author Lisa Hilton in the biography Athenais (Back Bay, 2004) explains how gambling was one of the only “honorable” ways in which the often cash-strapped aristocrats, who were forbidden to engage in trade, could make money. It also replaced the thrill of war. As Hilton says:
Psychologically, gambling can be seen as a rebellion against logic, intelligence, moderation and renunciation, amorally appealing to those who in some way feel their lives constricted, and yet containing its own penance from the guilt it provokes from the losses it entails.
It required a certain amount of discipline to gamble well; one had to have mastery over facial expressions so as not to reveal one’s thoughts about winning or losing, or one’s strategy. A noble had to be able to lose with grace and promptly pay debts.
Marie-Antoinette had been taught as a child by her own mother to gamble, because the Empress knew that a princess who could not play well would soon be separated from her money. Futhermore, the stakes at the court of Austria were much higher than at the court of France, which made Antoinette an intrepid player. As a teenager, she became inordinately attached to the practice. As she began to have gambling debts, Louis XVI, who was trying to save the government finances and give an example of thrift, forbade her to play anymore games of chance. She begged her husband to let her have one last game. He gave permission, and naughty Antoinette made sure the game went on for three days. Louis was disgusted.
Gambling in France did not disappear with the fall of the monarchy. The revolutionaries who replaced Louis and Antoinette had their own share of gambling debts. According to historian Russell T. Barnhart:
The mania for gambling had been transferred from defunct, monarchical Versailles to the thriving, bourgeois Palais Royal, where the five main gaming clubs throbbed from noon till midnight. During the Revolution, Prince Talleyrand won 30,000 francs at one club, and after Waterloo in 1815, Marshal Blucher lost 1,500,000 francs in one night at another. To bring the situation under control and raise taxes for the state, in 1806 Napoleon legalized the main clubs, which from 1819 to 1837 grossed an enormous 137 million francs.
Gambling took up only a short period of Marie-Antoinette’s life, and yet it is something for which she is remembered, even before her numerous charities. In order for the excesses of the Revolution to be justified, the failings of a teenage queen are held up for posterity.