Let them eat cake?

Marie Therese 1780 TroyThat is one of the questions I am often asked: did Marie-Antoinette really say Let them eat cake? Actually the full sentence is French is Qu’ils mangent de la brioche! or, literally, Let them eat brioche! I guess cake was more familiar to English speakers than brioche, a form of French bread enriched with eggs and butter (delicious, by the way.)

Whenever people ask, my answer is no, Marie-Antoinette never said that, or at least it is so unlikely as to be impossible. For one thing, the phrase is first found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, completed in 1770, when Marie-Antoinette was fourteen and barely engaged to Louis XVI. Rousseau attributes it to an unspecified “great princess.”

The Comte de Provence, Louis XVI’s younger brother (and future King Louis XVIII) ascribed in his Memoirs the phrase to his distant ancestor Marie-Thérèse of Spain, Louis XIV’s Queen. Only he mentions paté crust, not brioche.

I think the Count de Provence was confusing, and merging two different statements. Queen Marie-Thérèse may very well have originally recommended brioche to the starving poor over one century earlier, but the reference to paté crust was much more recent.

I have already mentioned in a prior post the maiden aunts of Louis the Sixteenth, called Mesdames, in particular the redoubtable Madame Adélaïde. These sisters could not have been more different from each other. The second princess, Madame Victoire was, according to Madame Campan, who had been reader to Mesdames, “beautiful and very graceful.” As for wit, Madame Campan diplomatically notes that Madame Victoire was less clever than her elder sister.

Madame Victoire RoslinThe Countess de Boigne, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to Madame Adélaïde, is more blunt in her assessment of Madame Victoire. The Countess was raised from birth in the entourage of Mesdames and, from her own account, spoiled by the four unmarried princesses, whom she knew quite well.

Madame de Boigne recalls in her remarkable Memoirs that Madame Victoire was a woman of “very little wit and extreme kindness. 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!

So a princess, shortly before the French Revolution, actually said something very similar to Let them eat cake! And, because of Marie-Antoinette’s unpopularity, it was – unfairly – attributed to her.

At a time of famine, it was an inflammatory statement. Bad weather during the summer of 1788 had resulted in a catastrophic harvest. The following winter was so cold that the Seine froze. A festive occasion for those with full stomachs, who, wrapped in furs, went skating on the river. At the same time, people were starving on the streets of Paris.

The year was 1789. A revolution was brewing…

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