Friday, 6 May 2011
Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
I picked this book up originally because I quite enjoyed the Sophia Coppola film staring Kirsten Dunst. I know many critics panned it and it only told Antoinette's story of life at court and missed out the whole getting her head shopped off bit, but I liked it. The film also contained parts that seemed so far fetched that I just had to find out if they were true (they were).
One of these moments was a bizarre ceremony involving the Austrian Maria Antonia being handed over to the French in preparation for her marriage to the Dauphin of France. She was made to strip off all her Austrian clothes, say goodbye to her Austrian attendants and then was dressed in French clothes before entering France as Marie Antoinette. She was not even allowed to take her Austrian pug.
This was the beginning of her life in the French court at Versailles and it seems Marie had a hard time of it from the beginning. Called 'that Austrian woman' by the French people while at the same time frustrating the Austrians for having little political impact in the French court, she also had to contend with a sexless marriage and a very public court where all her daily movements were watched closely by courtiers.
Antonia Fraser paints Versailles as being a bit like living in the Big Brother house.
'Ceremonies framed the royal day; these included the ritual of morning dressing at which the formal toilette was performed which much assistance, and the ritual evening undressing. The Rights of entry to these ceremonies, which despite their apparently intimate nature had nothing private about them, were prizes as an indication of personal prestige.'
Meals were also conducted in public and it was not unusual for the Royal family to be dinning while crowds of onlookers ventured in and out of the room stopping to watch. Its no wonder that Marie commented to her mother 'I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world.'
Of course Marie Antoinette's main role was of course producing children, in particular a new Dauphin. But for some reason the marriage was not consummated for seven years. Fraser does try to speculate why this was the case but its not something that we will ever know. What is clear is that during these seven years Marie surrounded her self with a close circle of friends and spent a large part of her time gambling and generally enjoying herself.
When the marriage was eventually consummated and Marie gave birth she appears to have gone through a change as she started to focus more on her children and her image of a mother. Not that the business of child birth was any more private than her day-to-day life, the room was filled with courtiers at the time and a few onlookers even made it to the inner rooms and were found 'perched aloft' in order to get a good look.
The strength of this book are the descriptions of court life at Versailles and these were the most enjoyable parts of the book to read. While I enjoyed the second part of the book which focused on the Royal family life during the French revolution, I didn't find there was quite enough information on the background of the revolution in order to give me any great deal of understanding as to how the Queen met her fate. The average life of a poor person living in France at that time was not really mentioned, nor is there any analysis of the general culture or of the revolution. Fraser is very reluctant to put any blame at all on either her subject, there are not even sufficient reasons given as to why the King and Queen were incarcerated or beheaded.
The Queens last few years were quite detailed and included her life in prison and the reasons she did not escape (that would have meant leaving her children) its just a little politics in this section would have helped me to understand more why she was there in the first place.
Overall this is an extremely well researched book and Fraser seems to have made the most of all the source material she had to hand. The book is not too difficult to read although a book of this size and subject is never going to be described as an 'easy' read. I found the majority of it quite fascinating and I would most certainly read another of Fraser's books (the one the six wives of Henry VIII appeals.)
Posted by Jess