For many people, the first thing that jumps to mind upon hearing Marie Antoinette’s name is the phrase ‘Let them eat cake.’ This quotation is frequently ascribed to France’s doomed queen, given as her careless response to the famine affecting the people as the revolution began.
‘Let them eat cake’ is evidently a catchy phrase, because it’s been recorded in use multiple times, dating back to sometime earlier than 1737. It was first ascribed to a Spanish princess, Marie Thérèse, who was the wife of French king Louis XIV, who reigned several decades prior to the French revolution. Marie Thérèse’s apparent use of the phrase was slightly different, being more in reference to crusts of bread left in the pan.
In 1751, four years before Marie Antoinette was even born, the phrase was again attributed Madame Sophie of France and other times, to Madame Victoire of France. Sophie and Victoire were both great aunts of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI, and high-ranking within the royal family.
But the most telling proof of its origin prior to Marie Antoinette’s reign as queen is that it can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which was a popular work during the queen’s lifetime. Completed in 1769 but not published until about twenty years later, the work contains the line, “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat cake!”’ Sometimes it is translated as pastry, but the sentiment remains the same – an utterly naïve royal lady betrays a lack of comprehension and sympathy by making such a frivolous remark.
It must have been particularly frustrating for Marie Antoinette to hear slander that attributed the quotation to her. After all, she would have been familiar with Rousseau’s work since it was very popular at the time, and one of her closest ladies in waiting, Madame Campan, often read aloud to her. I had some fun writing this scene in The Wardrobe Mistress.
It’s often thought that the cake of the quotation refers to brioche, a rich type of bread, which could account for the alternate translation to pastry. The texture of brioche is a cross between pastry and bread, with an even crumb and a dairy-sweet flavour – due to the high butter content. The richest brioche (which the upper classes would have eaten) can contain up to 80% butter! It’s best baked in a metal tin, to create a delicate, hairline thin crust. Less decadent brioche is closer to 20% butter, and ranges in the middle can be baked as well.
Since Marie Antoinette undoubtedly would have eaten brioche sometimes, even if she never suggested it as an alternative to plain bread for the peasants, I wanted to try baking it. My mom and I made it together, so now I can not only recommend brioche as tasty, if rich, but it was also a fun activity to do together. I couldn’t help but think of Marie Antoinette while I ate it, enjoying the connection to history.
The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.