(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
France’s beleaguered queen, Marie Antoinette, wrongly accused of uttering the infamous ‘Let them eat cake,’ was the subject of ridicule and curiosity even before her death; she has since been the object of debate and speculation and the fascination so often accorded tragic figures in history. Married in mere girlhood, this essentially lighthearted, privileged, but otherwise unremarkable child was thrust into an unparalleled time and place, and was commanded by circumstance to play a significant role in history. Antonia Fraser’s lavish and engaging portrait of Marie Antoinette, one of the most recognizable women in European history, excites compassion and regard for all aspects of her subject, immersing the reader not only in the coming-of-age of a graceful woman, but also in the unraveling of an era.
One of the historical figures that I’ve never liked was Marie Antoinette. To someone like me who is incredibly bookish and curious about the world around me I just could not connect with a woman who hated reading and seemed to only care about the insular court of Versailles. I had bought this biography about her on sale for just about $2 so I decided I’d give Marie Antoinette another chance. Antonia Fraser is a noted historian so I thought that if anyone could make me feel an ounce of sympathy for the woman she could.
And in the end, Antonia Fraser was the one who changed my mind about Marie Antoinette. Let me explain.
Marie Antoinette was the last girl in a long series of children birthed by the formidable Maria Teresa (more commonly known as Maria Theresa but Antonia Fraser uses the former spelling), archduchess of Austria and Holy Roman Empress. She was given a mediocre education at best until it was decided she would be the next queen of France and then poor Marie was supposed to learn everything there was to know about the French court, customs and language in just a couple of years. For someone who was functionally illiterate until the age of 10 or so because of an incredibly lazy governess, this would be no mean feat but I was actually surprised at how much she succeeded. Marie Antoinette was not a party girl as is commonly depicted. No, she was more of a lonely wife dealing with the humiliation of the whole court knowing that her husband Louis could not perform his manly duties (which of course was her fault). Louis was kind of a useless sort of a man, more interested in hunting and tinkering with his locks than learning about politics and how to run the state or even how to properly bed his wife. (As a side note: how one could stay totally innocent about sex in Versailles of all places, I’ll never know.)
So Marie Antoinette turned to her circle of friends and one of her weaknesses was gambling; she lost massive fortunes gambling with courtiers as was expected. When the regime’s fiscal crisis became apparent she started dressing more plainly but was rebuked by her fellow courtiers and the French people for not honouring the dignity of her role by dressing elaborately. No matter what she did, she was in a no-win situation and for that I really feel for her. Sure, she made some huge political miscalculations, particularly with encouraging Louis to hold fast against the tide of the Revolution but I just can’t hate her for her lack of political sense when she was never taught history or politics in any meaningful way. Marie Antoinette was not a smart woman, but that’s hardly a crime meriting a death sentence as well as the nearly universal condemnation of history.
Antonia Fraser’s strength as an historian is the fact that she can both tell a good story and analyze it and the results of people’s actions without boring her reader or focusing too much on the story-telling. Her writing is clear and to the point and when she injects her opinion into the narrative, she backs it up with evidence and logic extremely well. She even manages to shed some light on the bizarre and still mysterious Diamond Necklace Affair that so hurt Marie Antoinette’s reputation among the French people. The only real caveat I have about her writing is that it helps to have a bit of knowledge about common French phrases. She does usually translate the phrases but sometimes they are just put into the writing and it’s left to readers to figure things out. Usually you can figure things out because of the context, but it’s much easier if you’re like me and have had at least a little bit of a background in French, however basic.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey is a very well written biography of a woman who has been characterized as a villain for over two hundred years. As it says in the blurb, Marie Antoinette was an ordinary princess born into an extraordinary time that she was not equipped to handle. Not everyone can be Eleanor of Aquitaine and change the course of history so dramatically through daring and intelligence; Marie Antoinette was no Eleanor of Aquitaine. And can we really fault her for being rather ordinary? No. Even someone like me, who characterized her as a rather stupid woman was able to feel sympathy and understand her dilemmas much better because of Antonia Fraser’s work. She’ll never be one of my favourite historical figures but thanks to Fraser she’s definitely one that has been rehabilitated in my mind.
I give this book 5/5 stars.