A Review of Marie Antoinette The Journey by Antonia Fraser
France's iconic queen, Marie Antoinette, wrongly accused of uttering the infamous 'Let them eat cake," was alternately revered and reviled during her lifetime.
For centuries since, she has been the object of debate, speculation, and the fascination so often accorded illustrious figures in history. Married in mere girlhood, this essentially lighthearted child was thrust onto the royal stage and commanded by circumstance to play a significant role in European history. Antonia Fraser's lavish and engaging portrait excites compassion and regard for all aspects of the queen, immersing the reader not only in the coming-of-age of a graceful woman, but in the culture of an unparalleled time and place.
So, who was Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia of Austria, married at fourteen and executed at the guillotine at age 38, at the height of the French Revolution?
Was she a lioness or a lamb? A sexually promiscuous harpy or an undereducated, over-privileged girl of the upper-most upper class, put into a marriage and a political alliance that she was ill-equipped to handle, who grew into maturity with motherhood, only to have her life cut short?
Antonia Fraser tells us it is the latter. The book begins with Maria Antonia's, or, as her family called her, Antoine's birth, the last daughter of the imperious Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary. So dedicated a leader that she continued to sign royal papers shortly following the delivery of her "small archduchess".
Antonia Fraser describes Antoine's childhood as a mixture of pampered neglect and fierce obedience, right up to her marriage to the French dauphin. The alliance was political; Maria Teresa parceled off her children to various European capitals, with Antoine winding up in France, where there was no great love for Austria. Fraser describes her as lacking the education and maturity to fulfill her political role, and it would be some years before she fulfilled her biological role as a mother. In the meantime the young girl, now Marie Antoinette, indulged herself with clothes, music, friends and parties.
'Marie Antoinette The Journey' held my attention when Antonia Fraser discussed the French royal family and their relationships. However, once the family of Marie Antoinette, the King Louis XIV and their two surviving children have to leave their home at Versailles and live at the Tuileries in Paris, their situation takes on real poignancy. Fraser does a great job of making the reader feel the tragedy of what happens to this family, to show how they suffer, the cruel ironies of their dashed hopes and foiled plans, as well as the indifference of other European royals to their plight.
Antonia Fraser explains that Marie Antoinette's excessive living i.e. her dress bills, hair dressing, furniture and gambling debts fit her lifestyle. Especially the expenses involved in maintaining a royal household!
Fraser tries to clear Antoinette's name concerning the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and refutes charges that she was insensitive to the plight of the poor, especially as France's economy worsened. She also argues that Antoinette was a loving and attentive mother, and, her love affair with the Swedish Count Fersen an exception, a faithful wife.
I'd recommend Marie Antoinette: The Journey to anyone interested in learning more about this puzzling, contradictory woman and the troubled times in which she lived and died. Although, Antonia Fraser's writing style is a bit dry at times, even humorless, her duty in representing such a compelling biography of one of the French Revolution's most misunderstood women, is quite a fascinating tale! You will find footnotes and an extensive bibliography helpful as well!
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