Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

by Evelyne Lever

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.


In Marie Antoinette leading French historian Evelyne Lever tells the compelling story of the last, and most infamous, Queen of France. She draws on little explored sources including Austrian and Swedish archives and the correspondence of foreign ambassadors to Paris to paint vivid portraits of the Queen, her inner circle and the lavish court life at Versailles, as well as the tragic events leading to her death. - Describes the queen's life in detail, from her birth in Vienna, through her turbulent, unhappy marriage, the intrigues of life at court, to the final bloody turmoil of the French Revolution and her beheading - Describes Marie Antoinette's relationship with the Swedish Count Axel Fersen, the grand passion of her life - Describes the seething social and political climate of prerevolutionary France and the degree to which the Queen remained wilfully out of touch with the nation's economic troubles - Based on little known diaries, letters, court documents and memoirs - Hailed by the critics as 'evocative', 'lively and informed' and 'erudite'… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member beadinggem
Historical biographies often come out heavily laden with so much facts that the authors lose the narrative. Not so with Evelyne Lever, a French historian who writes with a deft touch. Catherine Temerson does a good job of translating it from the French. The life of Marie Antoinette is neatly
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divided in chapters which clearly define the notable periods of her life. The watershed scandal leading to the French Revolution, the diamond necklace affair can be found in its own chapter.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I chose this biography of Marie Antoinette for the 'more balanced view of the Queen than most previous biographers' claimed in one review - but I don't think that's what I came away with. Written by a French historian for an American audience, the scale was always going to be weighted in favour of
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the Republic.

To me, Marie Antoinette was a product of her upbringing. Her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, raised her for marriage, to link her country with a neighbouring power, and Antonia was matched with Louis Auguste of France from an early age. At fourteen, she was parcelled off by her mother, cut off from her home, and married to the equally clueless heir to the French throne. And from the start, the French hated her, initially because she was Austrian and then because she seemingly couldn't have children. So what did this young girl, alienated from her family and resented by her new country, do? She had a good time, which made the people hate her more. As her brother Joseph reported back to his mother, 'She is empty-headed and driven all day to run from dissipation to dissipation. She thinks only of having fun. She thinks nothing of the King. She is a likeable and honest woman, a bit young, unreflective, but deep down honest and virtuous'.

By the time poor old Louis got over his stage fright and finally gave Marie Antoinette an heir, a spare and two daughters (although the first Dauphin and her baby daughter Sophie both died in infancy), the damage had been done. Nothing Marie Antoinette said or did was right - she was having affairs, she was controlling the King's political decisions, she was an Austrian spy, she arranged to buy a diamond necklace but never paid up, she single-handedly ruined the French economy - and her much-maligned reputation has dogged her into the history books. I'm surprised Lever didn't add that Marie Antoinette said of the starving French, 'Let them eat cake' (she gets in the dig about Louis XVI writing 'Rien' in his diary, though).

The bias of this biography is amusingly French. Lever is obsessed with Fersen being Marie Antoinette's lover, even though she says herself, 'The mystery (if indeed there is one) will never really be solved. The two lovers' secret is sealed forever'. She describes the storming of the Bastille and the savage murders which followed as 'a series of violent acts and blunders' - whoops, terribly sorry, de Launay! The fishwives march on Versailles in October 1789 becomes 'a mob of Parisians armed with pikes, sickles and guns' terrorising 'those courtiers who had been torn from their pleasure-filled, idle lives'. I don't know if the translation into English has imbued the text with a comically purple tinge, but Lever writes like a republican Baroness Orczy. Great fun. Also, the epilogue needs updating - the fate of Louis XVII is not 'one of the great enigmas of French history', he actually did die in the Temple prison of neglect and abuse, age ten, proved by a DNA test in 1999.

So I'm still looking for a biography which will treat Marie Antoinette with 'interest and compassion', but this was halfway there and good for a laugh at the same time. Vive la reine!
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