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.)

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. I liked the movie actually, even though everyone said it was horrible. It wasn't amazing by any means, but I thought it was interesting. I also meant to read the book but have never gotten to it. I have it somewhere here. Maybe someday I'll pick it up. I love historical fiction!

  2. I've been curious about this book since seeing the movie as well. I think it would be worth a read judging from your review.

  3. I didn't even know this was a book! I loved the movie (however, I will say that a large part of that may have had to do the cinematography/fashion) though and I may just have to pick this one up!

  4. When I first saw the movie, I hated it with a passion.. Yet, on the second viewing, I thought it great for what it was - only an aspect of Marie Antoinette's life. I guess reading this book would actually be more interested than the movie, since there wouldn't be an MTV soundtrack or pink Converse sneakers (although I thought those were pretty witty in the context of the film).

  5. Jillian - oh its not historical fiction but a very thick non-fiction account of her life!

    Avid Reader - if you have any interest in her life then you should enjoy it although its not ever going to be a quick read.

    wereadtoknow - yeah I think the costumes and all the pink in the film, and the cakes were what mostly appealled to me, I did mind all that as it looked so stunning.

    Nikola - I think it was the whole fun aspect of court life that the film was trying to get which it did succeed at although of course its only part of the story. I think because I was expecting it not to be historical accurate I was ok with it.

  6. I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time. Hopefully I get to it soon!

  7. Having recently finished Madam Tussaud by Michelle Moran, in which Marie Antoinette is a peripheral character, I am in the market to read more about Marie...this sounds like a good place to start. Thanks for the great review :)

  8. I didn't know that the film was based on a book. It sounds like the book might be more enjoyable.

  9. I love both the book and the movie, although I think I only loved the movie because I had read the book first. I agree about there not being enough background about the French Revolution though, some parts were hard to follow if you don't know a lot about it.

    Antonia Fraser is a great writer. Mary Queen of Scots by her is one of my favourite books.

  10. I've always wanted to read one of Fraser's books, maybe Mary Queen of Scots. Henry VIII's wives would be even more interesting. I enjoyed the movie -- I didn't expect historical perfection, and Kirsten Dunst always plays characters in an interesting way. Marie Antoinette isn't a likeable heroine maybe but she probably doesn't deserve to be demonized as much as she has been.