William & Mary

Tack Faculty Lecture to explore Marie Antoinette’s secret library

  • Tack Lecture:
    Tack Lecture:  Ronald Schechter, professor of history at William & Mary, will deliver the spring 2019 Tack Faculty Lecture, “The Secret Library of Marie Antoinette: Revealing the Inner Life of a Conflicted Queen,” on March 28 at 7 p.m. at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Looking more deeply into French Queen Marie Antoinette’s reading habits led Ronald Schechter to fascinating discoveries about her intelligence, depth and inner-most thoughts and opinions.

Schechter, professor of history at William & Mary, will discuss what he found in the spring 2019 Tack Faculty Lecture, “The Secret Library of Marie Antoinette: Revealing the Inner Life of a Conflicted Queen,” on March 28 at 7 p.m. at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow, and attendees are asked to RSVP.

“The main thing that I want the audience to go away with is that Marine Antoinette was smart,” Schechter said. “She’s been portrayed as stupid, but she was smart. She’s been portrayed as a superficial person, but, as we’re saying with the subtitle to the lecture, she had an inner life.”

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Schechter is a specialist in the history of France, and particularly the 18th century, with a strong focus on the French Revolution. He was looking for sources on topics that would be of interest to his students when he ran across catalogs of Antoinette’s books that were published in the 19th century.

His discovery led him to research that he’s putting together for an upcoming book on the topic.

“As far as I could tell, and since then I’ve confirmed this, nobody has written on the subject of her library,” Schechter said. “So I had the information about what books were in her library, but up to that point, it was just bibliographers in the 19th century who had listed them. But there was really no study of them, the construction of her library or the acquisition of the many books that were in the library.”

Schechter traveled to France for his research. He viewed some of Antoinette’s books in the French National Library. Also, surprisingly, he found many of her books at the municipal library in Versailles, where they are available for viewing by the general public.

Schechter studied the books themselves and the catalogs that listed them. What he learned was that Antoinette was much more complicated and conflicted than previously believed.

His lecture will show how the secret library tells us more about the life of a historical figure of perennial interest to his students and the larger public, he said.

“Marie Antoinette is a recognizable figure, and a lot of people think they know her,” Schechter said. “She’s the one who said, ‘Let them eat cake,’ although she never said that. What that false quotation encapsulates is the belief that either Marie Antoinette was stupid or that she was out of touch.

“And the story I want to tell is that she wasn’t stupid, that she was actually quite intelligent. And she wasn’t out of touch. She knew exactly what was going on in France, and the books that she read show that she did.”

Reading about subversive ideas, owning illegal books and hiding them in a secret library in her boudoir show her intellectual curiosity, Schechter said. His work covers Antoinette from age 13 when her tutor was giving her books to the books she read in her prison cell as she awaited execution.

“Her library was, I think, in many ways her escape,” Schechter said. “It was a place to go where she didn’t have to worry about court etiquette, where she didn’t have to worry about what people were saying about her. It was a place where she could go and be herself, and part of being herself was reading books.”

The Tack Faculty Lecture Series is made possible through a generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78. Initially launched in 2012, the Tacks’ commitment has created an endowment for the series of speakers from the W&M faculty.