History in Review
Marie Antoinette: The Journey
By Antonia Fraser
(Anchor: 2002. Pg. 544.)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 10, 2002
Marie Antoinette has gone down in history as a much maligned and misunderstood woman. Had she not married the King of France, her life, and our view of her character, may have been much different. In Marie Antoinette: The Journey Antonia Fraser has crafted a compelling biography of a Queen who died at the hands of her subjects. Fraser, who has made a name for herself by writing extremely readable, entertaining, and authoritative histories on various figures in British History, has maintained her standing as a phenomenal writer in this work. Here, she tackles one of the most well-known and misunderstood characters to have lost their head during the French Revolution.
In this compelling work, Fraser strips away the myths that surround Marie Antoinette and explores what her life was really like. She also clearly explains that the quote "Let them eat cake" is false attributed to Marie Antoinette. This biography chronicles the entirety of Marie Antoinette's short life. It begins with her birth in 1755. She was born in Austria to the indomitable Maria Theresa, and Fraser takes a hard look at the effect that Marie Antoinette's mother, had on her daughter. Maria Theresa is an intriguing figure in her own right. She was an Austrian archduchess and Queen, in her own right, of Bohemia and Hungary. She took a firm hand in controlling her lands, and was an astute politician, and the mother of sixteen children. When Marie Antoinette was fourteen, Marie Theresa married her off into the French Royal family in order to advance Austrian interests. Her husband, the Dauphin of France, was himself only fifteen at the time of their marriage.
Marie Antoinette was not the shrewd politician that her mother was, and she was ill prepared to deal with the intrigues of court life into which she had been thrust. While Fraser provides a fascinating look at Marie Antoinette's early life and education, the majority of this book focuses on her life in France. Fraser details the intrigues and political machinations endemic to French court life. She explores how Marie Antoinette faired in this highly charged, yet very rigid environment. Fraser follows Marie Antoinette as she matured from a gangly, rebellious girl into the beautiful, and hated, Queen of France. And, she also looks at Marie Antoinette's private life and her relationship with her husband, including the medical problem that he had which made it difficult for her to become pregnant. As wife of the dauphin and later Queen of France, one of her main jobs was to produce an heir to the throne. Although her inability to conceive was not her fault, she was ridiculed and blamed for not doing her duty to the country. As events were to prove out, Marie Antoinette was to become the scape goat for a whole series of events over which she had no sway, not the least of which is being blamed for being the spark that set off the French Revolution.
As the wife of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette was forced into a role that she was ill-suited for, both by training and by inclination. Yet she struggled along and had the French Revolution not erupted, she may have become just another footnote in history. Unfortunately for her, Marie Antoinette was unpopular in France almost from the moment she stepped foot in the country. A more mature woman may have been able to overcome this initial distrust, but Marie Antoinette was not even a woman. She was simply a girl who lacked proper guidance and intuition to wade through the murky waters into which she was pushed.
As Fraser illustrates in this outstanding account, Marie Antoinette was not the evil temptress or heartless autocrat that she was portrayed as in the French media. These accounts were fueled by jealousies in the Court and by a populous looking for someone to blame for their misery and they chose the foreigner, Marie Antoinette. This is not to say that Marie Antoinette was perfect. Fraser is quick to point out Marie Antoinette's many flaws, both in personality and in conduct, such as her lavish spending habits. By showing both sides of Marie Antoinette, Fraser has given us a clear understanding of the woman, and why the French people reacted to her the way they did.
Fraser also follows Marie Antoinette's story through the tumultuous days of the Revolution, the murder of her husband, and imprisonment she endured with her children. We also follow Marie Antoinette up the scaffold as she bravely went to her ghastly death in 1793. Importantly, Fraser also looks at how those nearest to Marie Antoinette viewed her life, and what they wrote about her after she was dead.
Whatever your feelings are about Marie Antoinette, one thing is certain, this book will give a better understanding of the woman, the course her life took, and the events that surrounded it. Well-written, readable, and engrossing, I heartily recommend this book.
The French Revolution and Napoleon: A Sourcebook, Edited by Philip G. Dwyer and Peter McPhee
An anthology of primary texts, translated into English, on the French Revolution and Napoleon
The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Edited by Antonia Fraser.
This outstanding reference book offers short biographical sketches of all the English monarchs since 1066, starting with William the Conquer and ending with the present day monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II.
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