Fact of the Day
In fact, Rousseau recorded the quote from 1740 when Marie Antoinette would have been around 13.
During the French Revolution, rumors and suspicion spread like wildfire as the rebirth of a nation took over the people themselves. Marie Antoinette was the epitome of decadence and grandeur at a time when most average French people were struggling to get one loaf of bread each month. This made her disliked from the very beginning of her rein. She was born an Archduchess of Austria and was married to France for hopes of a new alliance. She was foreign and over-the-top lavish and therefore many bad things were wrongfully attributed to her.
The proper French for "Let them eat cake!" is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" In a more literal translation this means "let them eat brioche" which is a bit different than bread. Brioche has more of a crust and is a small round shape. In actuality, this phrase is still corrupted once over, probably changed to brioche because it was most popular at the time of the false accusation of Marie Antoinette's utterance. The original phrase meant more of a "Well, if they don't have bread, let them eat something that may be lying around, like pate crust," but we'll get there in a minute.
Madame Victoire was a daughter of King Louis XV (Marie Antoinette was married to King Louis XVI). She was notoriously "less clever" than the other ladies at court. Apparently, she was spoiled on top of her royal life. She was a young girl in court and was spoiled by all the other ladies there and her sisters especially. Novelist Catherine Delors recounts the incident as it occurred:
It was she who said, her eyes full of tears, in a time of famine when one spoke of the suffering of the unfortunates who lacked bread: But, my God, if they would only resign themselves to eating paté crust!"
The story seems a bit sad after hearing it this way. The madame was hounded by questions about how she felt about the current situation in France. She was most likely ambushed by their contemporary equivalent of paparazzi. The poor girl, just a bit slower than everybody else and sheltered in her rich lifestyle, she might not have understood that the poor also didn't have left over crusts like a royal dinning room might. She was just trying to answer their questions, obviously confused and distraught for the suffering of the poor.
Apparently, the line had more of an effect on Marie Antoinette as she was poster child for the same court years later. Also, if one takes a tour of Versailles today, the remnants of Marie Antoinette's play houses are on display. Apparently she and her friends used to play poor on a regular basis with complete farm replicas and even a replica of [select places in]Paris.
Adams, Cecil. "The Straight Dope: Did Marie Antoinette really say "let them eat cake"? ." The Straight Dope - Fighting Ignorance Since 1973. 2 Jan. 2009 .
Chrisafis, Angelique. "After 250 years, France falls for Marie Antoinette." guardian.co.uk. 1 July 2006. 2 Jan. 2009 .
Delors, Catherine. "Versailles and more: Let them eat cake? ." Versailles and more. 2 Jan. 2009 .
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