The feather-plumed hat, the towering coiffure, the tiered pastry stand laden with macarons…just some of the whirlwind of images that come to mind at the mention of this most (in)famous royal. Marie Antoinette spent centuries as a reviled figurehead of the ancien régime, a femme fatale whose machinations brought about a revolution. Antonia Fraser cuts through the myths to discover the real woman behind all the legends – Marie Antoinette, last anointed Queen of France.
Genre: History, Biography
In 1755, Marie Antoinette was born to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the fifteenth child pawn to be used by her mother in the political mêlée of Europe. At age 15, she was sent away from Austria to marry the Dauphin, Louis Auguste. At age 19, she was Queen of France. At 38, she was dead.
Despite a lavish and sheltered childhood and a gilded adolescence, the young princess was forever trapped in a power struggle between opposing political factions. As a foreigner, she was constantly blamed for the financial woes of the country. As a woman, she was constantly accused of influencing her husband’s poor decision-making. Throughout her time at the French court, she was a popular subject of the anti-royalist propaganda machine. Her person was used as a symbol for all the profligacy and debauchery of the French nobility.
With the popularity of the monarchy declining, Marie Antoinette retreated into a world of her own where she could make believe she was a simple farmwife. She also spent much of her time on her children, happy in the motherly role, as she had never been in role of Queen. As the Revolution gathered momentum, she tried in vain to ameliorate her public image, but it was too late.
I have a great love of Lady Antonia Fraser’s writings (six fat volumes currently sit on my desk). Even her biographies about men primarily deal with women, and there’s a reason why. Catherine Middleton, as the latest royal bride, enjoys an unprecedented level of freedom from political and public life. Even her biggest faux-pas are unlikely to bring a crazed mob to her door, hell bent on making her a head shorter. Her ability to bear children will never cause people to boo her or politicians to undermine her. In short, she will live as close to a normal life as ever a future Queen has had.
The same cannot be said of Marie Antoinette. This biography deals painstakingly with the details of her birth and childhood, which are very important, as they set the scene for a woefully undereducated and unprepared girl to enter the cutthroat arena of French court life. Reading about the life of a young woman, it is impossible for me as a young woman myself, to not put myself in her position. It seems astounding that a mere child could be expected to bear children to a husband she barely knows, while performing a balancing act between pushing her mother’s political agenda without stepping out of the bounds of her role as submissive wife. Furthermore, she had to deal with some incredible slander, including tales of cannibalism, necrophilia, lesbianism and incest.
Antonia Fraser portrays a sensitive, indulgent, compassionate and motherly woman. Far from being the callous harlot she was painted, she is shown to be pious (the word ‘prudish’ also comes to mind) and conservative. She was the ultimate victim of misogyny and xenophobia. Her story is amazing and dramatic, even more so because it is perfectly true. In her short lifetime, she made a lasting impression that is still around us today. This book is an entertaining and eye-opening read, and will change your mind about the most famous royal lady of all time.
PS. Sofia Coppola’s film, while beautiful and poignant, is a poor substitute for Fraser’s book. Marie Antoinette: The Journey provides a rich context to the life of the Queen, and deals with the most trying time of her life, which the film does not show. If you have enjoyed the film, I entreat you to try the book. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.