Marie Antoinette: The Journey
|Publisher:||Nan A. Talese|
Never before has the life of Marie Antoinette been told so intimately and with such authority as in Antonia Fraser’s newest work, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Famously known as the eighteenth-century French queen whose excesses have become legend, Marie Antoinette was blamed for instigating the French Revolution. But the story of her journey begun as a fourteen-year-old sent from Vienna to marry the future Louis XVI to her courageous defense before she was sent to the guillotine reveals a woman of greater complexity and character than we have previously understood. We stand beside Marie Antoinette and witness the drama of her life as she becomes a scapegoat of the Ancien Regime when her faults were minor in comparison to the punishments inflicted on her.
The youngest daughter, fifteenth out of sixteen children, of Austrian empress Maria Teresa and Francis I, Marie Antoinette was sent on a literal journey by her mother from Vienna to Versailles with the expectation that she would further Austrian interests at all times. Yet, Marie Antoinette was by nature far from interested in state affairs and much more inclined to exert a gracious, philanthropic role, patronizing the arts especially music, as royalty would come to behave in the nineteenth century. Despite this the French accused her of political interference and wrote scandalous tracts against her, mocking her lack of sophistication. Meanwhile, longing for a family and the birth of an heir who would have cemented the Franco-Austro alliance, the French queen had to endure more than eight years of public humiliation for her barren marriage before the delivery of her first of four children.
As these problems unfold, Antonia Fraser also weaves a richly detailed account of Marie Antoinette’s other, more poignant journey: from the ill-educated and unprepared girl who sought refuge in pleasure as a consolation into a magnificent, courageous woman who defied her enemies at her trial with consummate intelligence, arousing the admiration of even the most hostile revolutionaries.
Brilliantly written, Marie Antoinette is a work of impeccable scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of family letters and other archival materials, Antonia Fraser successfully avoids the hagiography of some the French queen’s admirers and the misogyny of many of her critics. The result is an utterly riveting and intensely moving book by one of our finest biographers.
In the past, Antonia Fraser’s bestselling histories and biographies have focused on people and events in her native England, from Mary Queen of Scots to Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. Now she crosses the Channel to limn the life of France’s unhappiest queen, bringing along her gift for fluent storytelling, vivid characterization, and evocative historical background. Marie Antoinette (1755-93) emerges in Fraser’s sympathetic portrait as a goodhearted girl woefully undereducated and poorly prepared for the dynastic political intrigues into which she was thrust at age 14, when her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, married her off to the future Louis XVI to further Austria’s interests in France. Far from being the licentious monster later depicted by the radicals who sent her to the guillotine at the height of the French Revolution, young Marie Antoinette was quite prudish, as well as thoroughly humiliated by her husband’s widely known failure to have complete intercourse with her for seven long years (the gory details were reported to any number of concerned royal parties, including her mother and brother). She compensated by spending lavishly on clothes and palaces, but Fraser points out that this hardly made her unique among 18th-century royalty, and in any case the causes of the Revolution went far beyond one woman’s frivolities. The moving final chapters show Marie Antoinette gaining in dignity and courage as the Revolution stripped her of everything, subjected her to horrific brutalities (a mob paraded the head of her closest female friend on a pike below her window), and eventually took her life. Fraser makes no attempt to hide the queen’s shortcomings, in particular her poor political skills, but focuses on her personal warmth and noble bearing during her final ordeal. It’s another fine piece of popular historical biography to add to Fraser’s already impressive bibliography. —Wendy Smith