Category: 18th century

DECEMBER 31: Isabella of Parma (1741-1763)

The granddaughter
of King Louis XV of France, Princess Isabella of Parma, was born on this day in
1741. Isabella was related to the royal families of both France and Spain and
is remembered for having an affair with the Archduchess Maria Christina.

16-year-old Isabella of Parma as painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1757 (x).

Isabella Maria
Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Dominica Giovanna (*gasp*) was
born on December 31, 1741 in Madrid, Spain at the Buen Retiro Palace. Her father
was Prince Phillip of Spain and her mother was Élisabeth
of France, the eldest daughter of King Louis XV. Élisabeth’s marriage had
been arranged when she was very young and she was only 14-years-old when she
gave birth to Isabella. Undeniably due in part to her mother’s young age,
Isabella’s parents did not have a happy marriage and her childhood was riddled
with family drama. She was estranged from her father and grew up very close to
her mother, which only ended in grief when Élisabeth died of smallpox in 1759.
The tragedy of her mother’s death convinced Isabella for many years that she
too was cursed to die a young death.

In 1760, she
was married off to Archduke Joseph of Austria, the eventual king of the
Habsburg Monarchy (and also the older brother of fellow lesbian icon Marie Antoinette). Isabella was only 18 at the time of their marriage and despite Joseph
affectionately welcoming her to her new home in Austria, she isolated
herself in the palace and is believed to have been plagued by depression for
much of her married life. It was her sister-in-law, Joseph’s sister Archduchess
Maria Christina, who Isabella truly felt romantic feelings for rather than her

Mimi, as Maria
was nicknamed, was the one of the few people of the Viennese court who Isabella
spent time with and allowed into her personal chambers. While they were at
court together, they exchanged over 200 letters and were nicknamed Orpheus and
Eurydice in reference to the romantic Greek myth. In two separate letters to Mimi,
Isabella writes: 

“I can think of nothing but that I am deeply in love. If I
only knew why this is so, for you are so without mercy that one should not love
you, but I cannot help myself,” and 

“I am told that the day begins with God. I,
however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her

Sadly, the two women’s affair was ended once Mimi was shipped off
to Hungary to be married. Only Isabella’s letters to Mimi were preserved, as Mimi’s to
Isabella were destroyed after her death.

With her lover
gone and the Habsburg monarchy eagerly awaiting a new heir, Isabella was forced
to confront her royal duty. Despite feeling little to no affection for her
husband and being plagued by anxiety over sex with him, Isabella was able to
give birth to a daughter on March 20, 1762. She would go on to have three more
pregnancies, but her first daughter was the only one to survive infancy.
Isabella’s health declined rapidly after her third miscarriage; she
would pass away only a week after her infant daughter on November 27, 1763.


OCTOBER 16: Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)

On this day in 1793, the disgraced
queen of France, Marie Antoinette, climbed the stairs of the guillotine to her
death. Although she is iconic throughout the world for purportedly speaking the
line “let them eat cake,” she has also long been iconic in lesbian subcultures for her “romantic friendships” with other women.


Marie Antoinette at age 12 by Martin van Meytens, c. 1767-1768 (x).

During Marie Antoinette’s
lifetime, pamphlets – publications not so different from today’s gossip
magazines – were running rampant with stories of the Queen’s wild
orgies that were supposedly being held behind the gates of the Palace of Versailles, as
well as stories of her supposed lesbianism. Her co-stars in these pamphlets
were the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac, two women who were
Marie’s closest friends and confidantes at different points throughout her
life. The pamphlets grossly exaggerated Marie Antoinette’s characteristics and used
their yarns of her sexual promiscuity and hedonistic lifestyle as a way to
display their dissatisfaction with the state of the monarchy as a whole.


Pornographic propaganda against Marie Antoinette depicts her in sexual acts with another woman (x). 

Whether Marie Antoinette did have
a romantic or sexual relationship with the Princess de Lambelle or the Comtesse
de Polignanc is beside the point; it is the myth and the imagery of the
secretly sapphic Queen of France that has made such an impact on lesbian subculture
that is has reverberated throughout the centuries. One author writes, “By the
end of the century, not only were the rumors about Marie Antoinette’s
homosexuality still alive, she had become for certain of her female admirers a
kind of secret heroine—an underground symbol of passionate love between women.”
In 1901, Marie Antoinette’s legacy became even more intertwined with lesbian
culture when two women partners claimed to have seen her ghost in the gardens
of Versailles in the Moberly-Jourdain Incident


After her 20th century biographers focused on Marie’s relationships with other women in
attempts to “de-lesbianize” her legacy, they ultimately cemented her status as a
sapphic figure. This status can be seen
in more contemporary modern culture in Madonna’s famous performance at the 1990
MTV Awards, the 2006 novel Abundance by Sera Jeter Naslund, and the 2012 movie Farewell,
My Queen