Pamphlets depicted Marie Antoinette in a range of situations. They usually focused on some deviant sexual act that she allegedly committed, and her most consistent partners were the Comte d’Artois, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Comtesse de Polignac. They aimed to portray her as a bad wife and mother by being uncontrolled in her sexuality, and even construed her female friendships as lesbian relationships. The pamphlets would often repeat themselves once the writers ran out of evil deeds for the queen to commit, but this only served to reiterate her infamy and the public never tired of them (Thomas 46).
The libels often focused on how Marie Antoinette “cruelly abused” her husband and corrupted her children—a direct consequence of her failure as a wife and mother (Goodman 127):
“Wife with no sense of decency, you prostitute yourself to fearful pleasures… Born to become the most contemptible of courtesans, the only trace you have of royalty is the impudence; of maternity, the name; of modesty, nothing, not even the appearance; of frankness, no knowledge; of virtue, no experience” (Thomas 245).
The pamphlets painted the queen as an Eve figure, “exploiting Adam’s weakness to ensure that the Devil’s plans succeed” (Thomas 17). The people of France supported Louis XVI, who they saw as a good but weak king, until the royal family’s flight to Varennes in 1791 (Thomas 17-18). Though they also placed the blame for this flight attempt with the Queen and her lover, Axel von Fersen, it was at this point they saw their sovereign as too submissive to his corruptive wife (Thomas 18).
“Answer us, Marie Antoinette: what have you done with your husband’s heart? You have weakened your spouse, you have cunningly brutalized him…. And you, flitting from one pleasure to the next, from one intrigue to the next, you reigned in his name, you were everything in his name. What baseness and arrogance, what boldness and duplicity, what protests of public-spiritedness and underhanded plots!” (Thomas 245)
They could easily content themselves with blaming all of France’s political and economic problems on Marie Antoinette because the French people saw her influence over their weak king as complete. As they saw it, it was their corrupt queen ruling the nation through taking advantage of her husband. For example, The Testament of Marie-Antoinette, the Widow Capet, written after her death, justifies her execution by citing proof that all the blame fell on her for the king protesting the Constitution, fleeing for Varennes, plotting with Lafayette, and planning the massacre of the Champ-de-Mars (Thomas 251).
Painting Marie Antoinette as an adulteress, and making a cuckold of the king, blamed her for undermining “the dignity of all men in the realm” (Thomas 114). While the pamphlets often portrayed the king as inept and the butt of a joke, they were also supposed to rouse anger towards his unfaithful wife on his behalf. For example, one of the pamphlets describe Marie Antoinette’s affair with the king’s youngest brother, the Comte d’Artois, which occurred on the king’s back while he was asleep (Thomas 114).
The pamphlets occasionally mentioned her role in corrupting her children as well. The accusations went as far as to claim she had committed incest with her son, the dauphin (Goodman 245). One pamphlet even blamed her for the dauphin’s death:
“Perverted mother, you abandon your son in his death bed! Oh, you know only too well who pushed him into the grave!” (Thomas 245)
So, these pamphlets were one way the people of France could criticize her for what they saw as her failure in her domestic role through her immorality and uncontrolled sexuality. Because of this, the blame fell on her for making their king weak and useless and endangering the future of France through her corruption and neglect of the royal children.
The queen’s pregnancies were always viewed with suspicion because of the allegations of her extramarital sexual relationships. Each time the queen announced her pregnancy, a flood of pamphlets responded by questioning the legitimacy and paternity of the child and theorizing about the child’s real father. The most common accusation was the Comte d’Artois, the King’s youngest brother (Thomas 64).
“You have ruined your husband… You have torn from him the heart of the French people; you have sacrificed him to your pride, to your d’Artois!” (Thomas 246)
The Comte d’Artois was one of the most consistent of her sexual conquests in these pamphlets. They constantly contrasted Louis XVI and his “impotence” with his younger brother, who was known for his sexual exploits (Goodman 104). The most popular pamphlet that depicted relations between the queen and the Comte d’Artois is probably The Love Life of Charlie and Toinette from 1779, where she bemoans her impotent husband who cannot fill her sexual desires and turns to the Comte d’Artois and the Comtesse de Polignac instead (Goodman 126).
The characters in the pamphlets did occasionally vary from the usual cast of Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Comte d’Artois, the Comtesse de Polignac, and Louis XVI. For example, in The Royal Bordello, a libel where Madame de Polignac and the Comte d’Artois are no longer at court, Marie Antoinette turns to others to sate her sexual appetite. In this pamphlet, a knight, a bishop, a baron, and a marquis take turns having sex with her while the others look on. It also references an affair between her and the Cardinal de Rohan.
The pamphlets went beyond accusing Marie Antoinette of having sexual relations with men; they also depicted her with a “lesbian vice,” having affairs with her close female friends like Madame de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe (Thomas 120). These rumors led to fears that “homosexuality was running rampant at Versailles” and Marie Antoinette was to blame for the corruption of the court ladies (Thomas 120).
The pamphlets most often depicted Marie Antoinette having sexual relations with the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac. Marie Antoinette met the Princesse de Lamballe early on, while she was still the Dauphine, and the two quickly became close friends. But by 1777, the Comtesse de Polignac was Marie Antoinette’s most intimate and trusted friend at Versailles. The queen even installed her as Governess to the Children of France after the birth of the dauphin (Thomas 122). The pamphlets focused heavily on these relationships, turning them into ones of lesbianism and debauchery (Thomas 122). Madame de Polignac rivaled Marie Antoinette in how many pamphlets she starred in. As such, in the face of intense public hatred, she was one of the first courtiers to flee Versailles on July 16, 1789. The pamphlets about her did not relent with her absence, but turned to recounting her sexual adventures in Rome (Thomas 123).
Some examples of the libel depicting Marie Antoinette with the Comtesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe are The Austrian Woman on the Rampage, or the Royal Orgy and The Royal Dildo. The first is an account of an affair between Marie Antoinette, Madame de Polignac, and the Comte d’Artois. It occurs while the king is present (even on top of his sleeping form at one point), emphasizing the degree of his impotence and the queen’s vindictive nature. The second depicts the queen as “Juno” using the dildo on her female lover “Hebe,” who either represented the Princesse de Lamballe or the Comtesse de Polignac, while complaining about her husband’s inability to satisfy her needs (Castle 127-128).
Madame Campan addressed these accusations of Marie Antoinette sexual relationships with the Comte d’Artois and her female friends only once in her memoirs while trying to defend the queen’s character:
“It is with reluctance that I enter minutely on a defence of the Queen against two infamous accusations with which libellers have dared to swell their envenomed volumes. I mean the unworthy suspicions of too strong an attachment for the Comte d'Artois, and of the motives for the tender friendship which subsisted between the Queen, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchesse de Polignac. I do not believe that the Comte d'Artois was, during his own youth and that of the Queen, so much smitten as has been said with the loveliness of his sister-in-law; I can affirm that I always saw that Prince maintain the most respectful demeanour towards the Queen; that she always spoke of his good-nature and cheerfulness with that freedom which attends only the purest sentiments; and that none of those about the Queen ever saw in the affection she manifested towards the Comte d'Artois more than that of a kind and tender sister for her youngest brother. As to the intimate connection between Marie Antoinette and the ladies I have named, it never had, nor could have, any other motive than the very innocent wish to secure herself two friends in the midst of a numerous Court; and notwithstanding this intimacy, that tone of respect observed by persons of the most exalted rank towards majesty never ceased to be maintained” (Campan).
When the pamphleteers ran out of evil deeds for the queen to commit, some began attempts to dehumanize her, putting her on the level of animals. In these pamphlets Marie Antoinette and people in her close circle, especially Madame de Polignac, were likened to wild animals like tigers and wolves (Thomas 126-127).
In Description of the Royal Menagerie of Living Animals, members of the court are likened to different animals. Louis XVI, called “The Royal Veto,” is described as being “timid as a mouse, and stupid as an ostrich” (Thomas 239-240). Next is “The Female Royal Veto.” The pamphlet describes a “crowned she-ape” who bedded a tiger or bear and gave birth to Marie Antoinette (Thomas 240).
“The female of the Royal Veto is lanky, ugly, wrinkled, worn-out, faded, hideous, frightful; but since the nation is stupid enough to feed its tyrants, she eats France’s money in the hope of one day devouring the French, one by one” (Thomas 241).
It also mentions Madame Royale, Marie Antoinette’s eldest daughter, as already having “her mother’s haughtiness and perhaps her vices as well” (Thomas 242).