One of the hazards of any vast sprawling research undertaking, such as the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, is anxiety about doing any sort of synthesis or conclusions with incomplete material. I still give an ironic mental wince when I recall that my original idea for the Project was to gather all the research and write a definitive sourcebook on lesbian motifs in history.
But it regularly happens that I'll create some sort of topical essay and then later trip over material that it would have been nice to incorporate into it. For example, Castle's detailed tracing of the development of the "lesbian Marie Antoinette" motif would have been useful as source material when I put together the podcast on the Anandrine Sect, with its side-bar on Marie Antoinette. Somewhat more seriously, the podcast on classical Roman sexuality would have been significantly improved in nuance if the English translation of Boehringer's work on female homosexuality in classical societies had been published three or four years earlier, so I'd had a chance to read it before doing that podcast. And there are definitely potential podcast episodes that I haven't produced yet because there are publications I want to cover before doing so.
And yet, you can't spend all your life being perfectly ready and sufficiently skilled to Do The Thing. Otherwise you may never do it at all.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 6 – Marie Antoinette Obsession
This chapter introduces a late 19th century spiritualist who, along with other supposed past lives, recounted her past life as Queen Marie Antoinette. Her performance as Marie Antoinette was knowledgeable but erratic, often “forgetting” that she wasn’t supposed to be familiar with modern objects and activities, then reacting to audience skepticism by reverting to ignorance of them. Her audience, including a psychologist studying her, recognized it all as an act, but one with significant verisimilitude.
Another early 20th century woman became convinced she was being visited by the ghost of Marie Antoinette and became obsessed with the queen and artifacts associated with her. This evolved into vivid dreams in which the dreamer was a boy struggling to save the queen from execution. The woman wrote a memoir of this lifelong obsession.
A few years later, two respected female Oxford academics claimed to have encountered the ghost of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers in the gardens at Versailles. Having later learned that their visit had been on a significant anniversary associated with the revolution, they postulated that they had experienced some sort of mental time travel, and went on to try to document the people and events they had seen as historic fact. These efforts were met with a certain amount of understandable scorn.
Castle asks the question, why is Marie Antoinette the focus of so many supernatural encounters? She suggests the possibility that above-mentioned experiences were linked directly – each woman having access to and being aware of the previous account. But this doesn’t answer the question of why Marie Antoinette would inspire this sort of sequential mass delusion.
The psychologist who studied the “past lives” example analyzed it in Freudian terms as reflecting emotional isolation from her parents and an antagonism toward her middle-class background. Marie Antoinette was a natural fixation for someone who dreamed of elegance and extravagance, possibly sparked by a story about Marie Antoinette by Alexandre Dumas that closely matched some of the characters and themes in her delusion. A similar psychological background can be traced in the second example.
The two academics also came from large and distant families which did not support their academic careers. For them, as for the other dreamer, Marie Antoinette may have represented an idealized mother figure. The rigorously academic approach by which the analyzed their experience could be seen as showing up their unsupportive male (academic) parents.
However, the Freudian idea of the “royal romance” (the fantasy that one is secretly an adopted lost aristocrat) doesn’t address an aspect of all three experiences in which Marie Antoinette carries a romantic, lover-like connection.
All of the women involved were resistant to marriage, in some cases mediating this through male figures in their visions, either as mentors dissuading them from marriage, or as an alternate persona through which they could express passion for Marie Antoinette, though not in an overtly homosexual framing. The two academics, however, only recently acquainted at the time of their supernatural experience, afterward became domestic partners in a relationship described by others as marriage like. Marie Antoinette, as it were, was their matchmaker.
We come back again to “why Marie Antoinette?” [Those who follow this blog may already have identified the connection.] Marie Antoinette had become something of a cult figure of royalist romantics in later 19th-century England among women, imbued with a homoerotic tinge (not uncommon to women’s romantic culture of the time). And, Castle suggests, the rumors of Marie Antoinette’s own lesbian relationships may have been a strong factor in attracting homoerotic fascination.
The next section of this chapter lays out the historic background and documentary evidence for the development of those rumors. This section is a good survey of the evidence on the topic, which I won’t summarize in detail.
After the restoration of the French monarchy there was a program of rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette’s reputation, which included rejection of the lesbian rumors. But rejection of the sexual aspect of Marie Antoinette’s relations with women did not require erasing the romantic nature of those relations, which were refashioned to fit later 19th century ideals of romantic friendship. Her friendship, especially with the Princess de Lamballe, was framed as noble and faithful until death, creating an archetype for a “safe” model of f/f passionate devotion. To suggest that it was (also) sexual was declared a monstrous slander. There is extensive exploration of depictions around this theme.
This, then, provides a motive for Marie Antoinette as the focus of hazily homoromantic fantasies and experiences. [Note: although outside the scope of what Castle is discussing, we can see this at play in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess, in Sarah Crewe’s fixation on Marie Antoinette and Lamballe as a fantasy escape.]
In “sanitizing” Marie Antoinette of lesbian overtones, biographers and romantics contradictorily transformed her intense same-sex friendships into a symbol of homoerotic romance, with an imprimatur of acceptability.
But alongside this creation of Marie Antoinette as a “sanitized” icon, lesbian writers of the 20th century romanticized the queen as an overtly lesbian figure, including (as only one example) Stephen Gordon’s pilgrimage to Versailles in The Well of Loneliness. Several other similar literary references are cataloged.
Castle’s summary returns to the motif of Marie Antoinette as ghostly figure, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to tie this in to the theme of lesbian presence enabled by its erasure – it was the sanitization of Marie Antoinette's slegacy that enabled more women to connect with her homoerotic symbolism.