Wednesday, December 10, 2008

REVIEW: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. Published 2006 by Anchor. Nonfiction.

I picked up Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser, on impulse at a library sale, after having seen Sofia Coppola's movie based on the book. But it wasn't just the movie tie-in cover that got my attention. The book is also pink. Pink is a girlish color, and it's an interesting choice for this lay person's history of one of history's most controversial and mythologized women. Just 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? A lioness or a lamb? A sexually promiscuous harpy or an undereducated, over-privileged girl of the upper-most upper class, shoehorned into a marriage and a political alliance she was ill-equipped to handle, who grew into maturity with motherhood, only to have her life cut short?

I don't know, but Fraser would have us think the latter. The book begins with Maria Antonia's, or, as she was known to her family, 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". 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, spent money and generally enjoyed herself.

Once her children were born, she settled down, but then the French political situation started to deteriorate. This is where I started to lose track of events. The book held my attention much better when Fraser talked about the French royal family and their relationships; once the family of Marie Antoinette, the king Louis 14 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 and from there it's all downhill. Fraser does a great job of making the reader feel the tragedy of what happens to this family, to how they suffer and to the cruel ironies of their dashed hopes and foiled plans, as well as the indifference of other European royals to their plight.

Fraser argues throughout that Antoinette's excesses- her dress bills, hair dressing, furniture and gambling debts, and other lifestyle expenses, not mention the expenses involved in maintaining a royal household- were nothing more than typical for a woman of her station. She grants that some of her actions were unwise, for example her patronage of the Polignac family, which would later contribute to public anger towards her. She tries to clear Antoinette's name concerning the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and refutes charges that Antoinette 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.

On balance, for me, a Francophile but no history expert, I found the book to be a pleasure to read and generally convincing. It is also clear through Fraser's strong voice and repetitions that she works her agenda of restoring Antoinette's image vigorously. I had trouble following the politics, but maybe that's just because I read the book at bedtime. The plethora of footnotes and extensive bibliography shows that Fraser, primarily known as a writer of fiction, did her research. And the book reads easily and fluidly, like historical fiction without the dialogue. It's no light read, but I'd recommend Marie Antoinette: The Journey to anyone interested in this puzzling, contradictory woman and the troubled times in which she lived and died. It would make a great holiday gift for the Francophile or royal-watcher in your life.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.