“Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution” on PBS: history lite

Marie Antoinette PBS

Marie Antoinette french revolution PBS

I have not seen the PBS film, and can’t comment on it, but the site is worth a visit. It is lavishly illustrated, and I found the parts on Versailles particularly interesting.

The site also includes interviews of British historians Simon Schama and Lady Antonia Fraser. No French scholars? Not even Simone Bertiere, who is, in my opinion, THE biographer of Marie-Antoinette? Chantal Thomas? Sorry, apparently not.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny Britons, or people of any other nationality, the right to study and discuss that era and its characters, but it is called the French Revolution for a reason. What if PBS featured the American Revolution without interviewing a single American historian?

Now that I got my French peeve out of the way, let’s talk about the tone used to describe the “famous faces” of the Revolution. Marie-Antoinette is The Teen Queen. For the record, she was 33 at the beginning of the Revolution. But wait, there is more: Necker, the Comptroller General of Finances, as Monsieur Moneybags? Robespierre as Mad Max? Is this appropriate for what purports to be a serious work?

In addition, be warned that the same Famous Faces part contains significant errors, in particular with regard to the crucial issue of the drive to war. I haven’t combed through the entire site for similar inaccuracies, but they may be found elsewhere.

So enjoy the pictures, they are gorgeous, and take the rest with a grain of salt.

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18 Comments to ““Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution” on PBS: history lite”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Very disheartening, Ivan! In fact, Marie-Antoinette assumed a political role late in the story (I would say from the mid-1780s) and most reluctantly at that. And she was not called “Marie” but “Marie-Antoinette” or “Antoinette”…

  2. Ivan says:

    I saw the History Channel’s unintended lampoon of the French Revolution: indeed not a single French historian. I don’t even remember a European historian. The entire presentation is given as though it’s a documentary but seems to take high school history books and libelles for its sources. I was very disheartened to see professors of prominent universities discuss the tabloid version of the Revolution. I knew it was a bad sign when they showed a clip of some generic 18th century chateau as Versailles and the constant references to “Marie’s” villainous indifference.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    I never saw that one, Penny, but I think I saw it advertised. You are correct: they couldn’t even get the dates right.

  4. Penny Klein says:

    if you think that BBC was bad, once upon a time the history channel here in the USA did the French Revolution and only had the American historians as well. i think they also got their facts wrong about age.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    I hadn’t heard of Marie Lourdais, but I am interested in learning more. So yes, please, by all means send it. Genealogy is fascinating, isn’t it?

  6. Valerie Lourdais says:

    Dear Catherine,

    Have you heard of Marie Lourdais? She was a dedicated Britain woman who helped priests and became a spy for La Charette. She died when she was 95! I am doing some genealogy research, she might be linked to my family. If you are interested I can send you her witness that the mairie of La Gaubriere sent me. Very interesting and inspiring!
    Thank you for making known the Chouans. Not many knows their devotion to the Catholic faith and loyalty to the King.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Richard – You probably noticed that I wrote “view(s) of the Revolution.” It is fair to say that they run the whole spectrum within the French population. The more recent French scholarly works on Louis XVI have emphasized his culture and intelligence. The general view of Marie-Antoinette is also more favorable than it used to be, witness the success of the exhibition of the Grand Palais. A great deal of the credit for that goes, I believe, to Simone Bertiere.

    As for the Vendee in particular, the passions still run high. No one disputes that atrocities were committed (sometimes on both sides) though the term “genocide” is generally considered inappropriate in its modern sense. Even some Republican generals were outraged by what was going on and the level of suffering inflicted on civilian populations. I am thinking in particular of Biron, formerly the Duke de Lauzun, who was relieved of his command by Carrier for being too “soft.” Likewise, General  Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas, spoke up against the cruelty of that war and requested another assignment, which was granted.

    So yes, the names of Biron and Dumas are inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe. Does that shock me? Frankly, no. They were loyal to a Republic they had sworn to defend, and when confronted with a situation they found humanely unacceptable, they acted upon it, within the limits of a soldier’s duty. That was a courageous and honorable attitude. Biron was guillotined, and Dumas received scant gratitude for his service, though that had nothing to do with the Vendee.

    As to the Bay of Quiberon landing, which reminds me, in the quality of the preparation and the success of the outcome, of the Bay of Pigs, it ended in a bloodbath, but it was clearly different from the Chouannerie.

    The leaders of the Chouans remain popular figures to this day, in particular the charismatic Cadoudal. One misconception I often  find, however, is that the Chouannerie happened at the time of the Terror. In fact, it lasted, under one form or another, until the full restoration of the Bourbons in 1815. My second novel takes place in 1800-1801, after the so-called “pacification” of the West, and yet you still had a low-grade insurgency going on. The Chouans hated Bonaparte no less than the Republic that had preceded him. I don’t know whether you read Dominique de Villepin’s “Les Cent Jours” (a book I recommend, by the way) but he contends that, by creating a diversion, the insurgency was instrumental in the French defeat of Waterloo.

  8. catherine, How do the French view the revolution? I have been blasted on certain groups for defending Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI.Some of the most virulent have been French. The turn the volume down on there retoric when I asked them about la Vendée, yet they cast it as a necessary move to strengthen the republic. I would say that a government which must increase it’s hold by killing its King, Queen, their family and subjects is a tyrany.

    I dont suppose it is their fault but do the French student use the same text books as they do in America?

    Still the perpetrators of the masacre in the Vendee have their names ingraved on the Acrh de Triomphe.

  9. Elisa – Who ever gets the full story? I simply find it a pity that Americans interested in the Revolution don’t get to see the French view(s) of it.

  10. Elisa says:

    I saw this documentary during my final semester of library/graduate school. Too bad Simone Bertiere wasn’t included. Maybe she wasn’t asked or was unable to do it–who knows.
    It’s unfortunate that we’ll never get the full story.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Frankly, Glenna, I too expected better from PBS.
    And thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement about the blog!

  12. Glenna says:

    I was a bit surprised by some of the misinformation on their site. It was interesting to see where things were located at Versailles though. Thanks. I enjoy your site a lot.

  13. And I just realized that the last words in the excerpt of “La Veritable Histoire” (when Marie-Antoinette mutters “This is intolerable!”) are taken from Madame Campan’s Memoirs. It does seem that the authors of this film did their homework.

  14. Richard says:

    Pity. Elena is right of course, I used to watch Sherock Holmes on Mystery. I has changed in years since. As a lover of history I deplore networks which change history in order to further an agenda, even if it is a slight change in the tone of voice, inserting a “fact”where there is none.

    As for the “Veritable Histore” it was played in Quebec so when I visit there in Sept I will see if I can pick one up.

    de Brantigny

  15. Elena – Yes, this tongue-in-cheek tone is totally out of place. It is not even consistent within the site. A pity, because the project was obviously ambitious and well funded.

    Richard – On occasion I have watched very good programs on PBS (I find Nova, in particular, often interesting, and some Masterpiece Theatre shows, not all, are quite good.) This website is not one of their shining moments. And unfortunately, European DVDs follow a different format from their American/Canadian counterparts, so I won’t be able to watch this film. From what Elena says, it must be better than this would lead one to believe.

    The other film, for which you sent me the link, is in European format. It seems to have been filmed on location, and the text is taken from one of Marie-Antoinette’s letters to her mother. So far so good!

  16. Richard says:

    I almost forgot… This is the amazon.fr address for Marie-Antoinete la Veritable Histore

    de barntigny

  17. Yes, Catherine, I was also truly appalled that they did not include Simone Bertiere AT ALL. I did not see Philippe Delorme, either. Now when I watched the program a few years ago, they did feature Chantal Thomas and Evelyn Lever. How odd that they would not have them on the website. And to have Madame Lever on the program and not Madame Bertiere was perfectly outrageous.

    “Teen Queen.” I hate that appellation. So absurd, when she was only a teenager for two years at the beginning of the reign.

  18. Richard says:

    Ma Cher Madame Delors,
    PBS is not known for its lack of bias. A quick perusal of the cast of characters, and the title they place with them show how shallow a biography this will be. PBS (Proletariat Broadcasting System) is very much a kin to the NPR (National Proletariat Radio) in their outlook. I may have my brother copy it for me and watch it with out the sound, I can play Handel and Mozart in the background.

    In the same vein have you seen this?


    If it is any good I may purchase this.

    Do American DVDs work in France?

    de Brantigny

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