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.
Similar in this library
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.
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.
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.
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
Her interpretation of Marie Antoinette avoids the cartoonish depictions of her as an uncaring monsterous slut who bled France
I think the most shocking part of Marie Antoinette's life to remember is that she was only fourteen when her mother, the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, married her off to a stranger in another country. Fourteen! And almost from the start, she faced abuse from the French court: Marie Antoinette was sneeringly baptized l’Autrichienne by Madame Adélaïde, eldest surviving daughter of Louis XV, years before it became a popular term of derision. Her husband, the future Louis XVI, was only one year older and not interested - or perhaps unable - to consummate the relationship, either through shyness or a medical condition. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Marie Antoinette turned to friends like the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac and preferred to have fun gambling and attending parties, catching the disease of Versailles at an early age. Her historical reputation is one of excess, ignorance and haughtiness when contemporary accounts portray her as compassionate, affectionate and loyal. When all of Paris turned out to celebrate her marriage to the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette recognised that ‘in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness'. And during the infamous 'Affair of the Diamond Necklace', she told the jewellers that 'We have more need of ships than of diamonds'. Fraser's biography highlights how Marie Antoinette became the scapegoat of France ('Madame Deficit', 'Madame Veto') because she was a foreigner and her husband was not fit for the role he was born into. What happened to her during the Revolution was horrendous by any standards. 'Oh my God,’ she wrote in October 1790, ‘if we have committed faults, we have certainly expiated them.’
Although probably not Antonia Fraser's intention, I am a now a firm defender of Marie Antoinette. There is a lot of background politics to plough through - the power play of Versailles and the Queen's relationship with her Austrian mother and brothers - but the heart of the story is a young woman who had to adopt a new country and language at a tender age, and wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother, yet who faced judgement for being both an outsider and a 'flaunting, extravagant queen'.
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
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.
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!