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 listener not only in the coming-of-age of a graceful woman, but also in the unraveling of an era.
Fraser paints an extremely sympathetic portrait of Marie Antoinette, a caring family woman who was dreadfully wronged and maligned in her time and for the over 200 years since her violent death. While I would have preferred a more balanced look at the Queen's life (while she surely wasn't the sole, or even a major, cause of France's economic woes in the latter part of the 18th century, Marie Antoinette's lavish spending and her attempts to forward Austria's interests in French politics certainly didn't help matters), I appreciated the side of the story I did get. Married off to the French Dauphin at the age of 14, the youngest Archduchess of Austria was sent by carriage away from her beloved family, home, and friends to a 16-year-old husband who vastly preferred hunting to being with his new wife. Living in a highly ritualized, rigid court existence where her every move was watched--some to copy, and others to condemn--Marie Antoinette endured the humiliation of seven years of unconsummated marriage that was earnestly discussed by everyone from her mother (in scolding letters to her) to the pamphleteers (who speculated, wrongly, on her finding sexual consolation with many of the men and women of her inner circle). Is it any wonder she turned to an increasingly frantic party lifestyle?
When Marie Antoinette and the mild, indecisive Louis XVI finally became truly man and wife three years or so into his reign, and (most importantly) started producing heirs, their domestic tranquility would have turned them into no more than a brief paragraph in French history if not for the Revolution. It was only under extreme adversity that Marie Antoinette came into her own, showing strength and courage through four long years of terror.
Fraser's epilogue lays out the analysis that I longed to have ongoing in the book, which was filled instead with too many portents of doom ("In her enjoyment of Figaro, Marie Antoinette could not imagine the consequences to her personally of the piece's wild popularity . . .") for my taste. And I longed for a timeline and a "Cast of Characters" to help me keep everything straight. All in all, though, Ms. Fraser's exhaustive research makes this a worthwhile read.
One failing of Fraser's biography arises from the very complexity of its subject. Even though the author includes a number of supplementary aids to understanding the history – genealogical charts, a map of 18th-century Europe, a detailed index – the sheer number of characters and the overwhelming complexity of French revolutionary politics sometimes make events difficult to follow. Additional appendices, for example a list of major historical figures and a simplified timeline of events, would help the reader in making sense of all the details of the narrative. But even without them, Fraser has skillfully accomplished a remarkable feat. She breathes new life into a legendary historical figure who lost hers over two centuries ago, and in doing so she makes the story of Marie Antoinette and the history of her times as compelling as any adventure novel, as touching as any romance.
Antonia Fraser is, as usual, excellent and does justice to Marie Antoinette’s life and reputation. I had no particular interest in her but picked up the book on remainder – I’m glad I did.
Wow, another (also her Mary Queen of Scots) outstanding female biography of a very misunderstood person of history. I think Fraser struck a good balance between speculation and fact. You cannot write a biography that holds much human interest without make some forays into the speculative arena. So maybe she was 'with' Fersen, maybe not. Does it matter all that much? Fraser does her best to present the whole person of Marie Antoinette, but she emerges from these pages as a real heroine, standing in awesome dignity amidst the increasing abuse heaped upon her. Think about it, married into the insanity of the French Court at 15 and expected to figure all that out AND grease the wheels of 18c international diplomacy? So she escaped into her Trianon and some other fairly harmless episodes (like love?) at times. But I think the evidence is convincing that she treated people with fairness and respect through her life of ups and unimaginable downs and was a loving mother and probably a true wife. My only real criticism is that the book could have used a name glossary and possibly a date chronology. There were way too many Counts and Duc's names that were almost as bad a Russian history! Knowing that a particular Duc is a brother to the King would help a lot. Altogether though I came away with great sadness. The French Revolution was despicable in so many ways but the murder of Louis and Antoinette was just indefensible on any human level. Was there ever a King murdered (much less a Queen) killed for less? As a symbol? Yikes, aren't people fun?
Her interpretation of Marie Antoinette avoids the cartoonish depictions of her as an uncaring monsterous slut who bled France dry for her own pleasure; nor does Fraser portray the queen as a innocent victim of circumstances, who had little or no part in her ultimate downfall. Instead Fraser skillfully charts a middle course and shows Marie Antoinette as a girl and woman who despite her advantages suffered from human temptations and failing, and despite her failings showed eveidence of real character.
Even though the queen spent the last four years of her life in captivity, it seems as if her life was not her own from birth. She was unlucky in many ways and was made a scapegoat for some of the massive problems France faced at the end of the eighteenth century. Fraser tells us that Antoinette’s tomb is behind black metal bars with the French fleur de lis surmounting them. If any sight could claim to summarise Marie Antoinette’s life, Fraser’s well compiled biography suggests that there is no better one than this.
She adds some speculation to things, but I found it easy to tell when she was taking artistic license as opposed to telling the history outright. She relates anecdotes and her resources are impressive.
I read the book because I saw the movie (starring Kirsten Dunst) and am very glad it brought me to the wonderful works by Antonia Fraser.
This book is obviously well-researched. I can't imagine there isn't anything about MA that isn't covered in this book. Even I can tell this historian really knows her stuff. And the reading wasn't as dry as I had feared. She is a great writer.
This book is great for not only learning and understanding about MA and her life, but also about life in the French court under Louis XV and Louis XVI, and the society, culture and politics of that time, both in France and between France and other countries.
It's really sad. They did try to change things in their own way. Make things simpler. But forces around them proved too great to surmount.
My only complaint is all the name dropping! This was my greatest struggle with this book.
It was immediately apparent to me that no way was I going to be able to keep track of all the people she mentions - with all the titles; Duc, Madame, Duchess, Comte, Comtesse, Count, Marquis, Princess/Prince. And of course it seems like most of them are named Louis, Louise, Marie, Maria, Marianne, Christine, Caroline, Therese, Theresa, Joseph, Josepha - you get the point (not that the author can be blamed for that point). One paragraph I counted had at least 14 names, not counting MA's! It's good for someone really into doing research, but that's not me. After I kind of gave in and just let that go (which is something that is really difficult for me to do - I have a need to comprehend and understand every sentence I'm reading in a book), our became a little easier. I figured I would probably recognize the most important ones when I needed to. It was most definitely worthwhile sticking it out!
After reading hundreds of pages, seeing her go from a rather neglected Austrian princess to a neglected French princess, living through the early years of her marriage to Louis XVI, who seems to have pretended she was invisible for about the first ten years until they became so attached to each other, it really was sad to read of how they and their children were treated by the men who drove the revolution.
Bios can seem a little dry in the beginning, but I never had my interest lag in this one, and now I actually understand what led up to the French Revolution. And no, she never said, "Let them eat cake."
This was very good. I must admit to not knowing a lot about her, the time period, or the other people involved, so I learned a lot. Because I don't know as many people, at times there were a lot of people to try to keep straight, but I think Fraser did a pretty good job of at least keeping clear the main “players”. It's a long book, but it was very good. And I think it's the first I've read by Fraser. I'm sure I'll pick up more and I'll likely read more about Marie Antoinette, as well.