The phrase ‘let them eat cake’ has created a false impression.
Publisher: Phoenix (Orion Books)
First Published: 2001
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2011
Marie Antoinette was the ill-fated Austrian bride of her cousin, Louis XVI of France. Fraser documents her life from the cradle to the grave and the legacy she left.
The book is very well written and the narrative runs quicker than many fiction releases. If this were fiction it would be magnificent. Fraser describes events with good detail, uses plenty of primary sources for quotations, and when she comes to the executions of the family she succeeds in showing how horrific and unjust the situation was.
Fraser presents Marie Antoinette as the unlucky victim of political manoeuvrings by Europe’s dynasties and a scapegoat of the French Revolution. But she does it whilst remaining objective, no matter the fact that her writing positively impresses upon the reader her overall opinion of the Queen as a good woman. She never speaks negatively of Marie Antoinette, but she does allow for those stereotypes that are grounded in truth to stay; for example the idea that Marie Antoinette was uneducated – Fraser presents not a woman unwilling, rather a woman disadvantaged by a male-orientated society. So you have a queen who had wit and was a great entertainer, but was uneducated and an obvious mismatch for her academic husband. Yet she was a lady of common sense who was strong in her own right.
That Marie Antoinette struggled to balance her responsibilities is examined on various occasions. Being told that she was an ambassador for Austria by her mother, she had to also remember that she ought to allow French society to change her. Such instruction would be difficult for anyone, and certainly in our present day much smaller things are hard enough, but as Fraser illustrates it would have been all the more so for Antoinette given her lack of education and her love of her family.
Fraser provides the evidence that was given at Antoinette’s trial, having already examined each piece to destroy any idea of its being true. She does this well, leaving no reason why the reader should think otherwise. The reason why it’s believable is that the author has already described Antoinette’s personality and life, and indeed the book ends with a look back at what was said before. Fraser doesn’t deny that Marie Antoinette didn’t help herself by spending lots of money on friends and on entertainment, but she also reminds you that money was also spent on trying to live more frugally, or at least as frugally as the Queen of France could.
And it is this desire to live more like the common person that gets lost under the burdens of the revolution and thus needs to be remembered. Fraser recounts many occasions where not only did Marie Antoinette wish to dress simply or act the role of a common servant in theatre, but she was truly concerned for the everyday man, especially when it came to children. What she lacked in education and political opinion, she made up for in domesticity, wanting nothing more than to look after her children herself and caring when the offspring of peasants were in a bad situation.
This adds up, successfully for Fraser, to a woman who made the best of what she could with the disadvantages afforded to her. A person lacking in a mother’s love but not lacking in a mother’s criticism, feeling guilt at not being pregnant when it was not her fault, and used to the company of her siblings and an aristocratic way of life was never going to be perfect Queen material.
The big downfall of the book is Fraser’s fixation on her idea that the Swiss Count Fersen and Marie Antoinette must have had a sexual relationship. So relentlessly pursued is this idea that one could say that the most pressing reason Fraser had for her book was to write a story of some-what forbidden love. What makes Fraser’s determination so peculiar is that for the first third or so of the book she continually expresses how content Marie Antoinette and Louis were, that even if they weren’t in love, there was a strong devotion there. The transition between her saying this and speaking of affairs is sudden. From the sources Fraser has provided there is simply not enough evidence to say for certain that this affair happened and that Fersen’s admiration for Marie Antoinette and vice versa ever transformed into fornication. It is possible, yes, but as it is not definite, and as it is quite obvious Fraser is having dreamy thoughts that she should have used in a piece of fiction rather than historical biography, her constant claims are, as Henry VIII would say of his marriages, null and void.
Fraser is well read, that is obvious, and in the main her words are easily acceptable. For the most part she is objective, and where she is not she is at least transparent. Marie Antoinette is a compelling book that deserves a read by anyone interested in the period or the queen herself, just be aware that it was written by a romanticist.
September 19, 2011, 2:00 pm
I’ve just finished Michelle Moran’s latest novel, Madame Tussaud, which is as much about the French Revolution as MT. I’d like to know more about Marie Antoinette and I like the sound of this one.
Charlie: I need to get round to reading Moran’s work, it’s been on my list for ages! This is a good book for an all round view of her I would say, and I’d like to think that as the basis for the film, it’s also the general 20th Century view.