Name of Book: Marie Antoinette: The Journey
By: Antonia Fraser
Publisher: Anchor Books (a division of Random House)
Copyright Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 512
Reason for Reading: It’s been on my TBR list for ages, but I was inspired to pick it up after falling in love with Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey.
Source: my own shelves
Marie Antoinette is well-known as the Queen of France during the French Revolution. She is incorrectly credited with having said let them eat cake and was beheaded at the guillotine. Fraser’s well-researched account of the full scope of Marie Antoinette’s life from birth to death paints a very different, nuanced portrait of this reviled Queen.
After reading Becoming Marie Antoinette, I decided to pull this book from my shelves and just read it already. I purchased it right after the movie came out, it being the inspiration for the film. But it took me several years to finally crack it open.
Fraser is fully objective. She takes all her sources into account. She is able to recognize Marie Antoinette’s innate faults; however, she also recognizes her good qualities. She crafts a complex, human character. It is fascinating to learn about the perceptions of MA. When she first arrived in France as the Dauphine she was well-beloved by the French people. Much of what is misunderstood about her now-a promiscuous, freewheeling, frivolous spending queen can be traced back to the rumors and gossip gleefully passed around in the libelles published during MA’s time.
MA was anything but promiscuous. She was actually quite chaste and modest. Louis refused to consummate their marriage. She knew her future was precarious as long as she remained ‘half a wife.’ It was against her sensibilities and her nature to jeopardize her position. Marie Antoinette tried to replicate the friendship she had enjoyed during her childhood with her beloved sister, Charlotte. She was in a foreign country where she was mistrusted by those at court. The courtiers even had a horrible nickname for her. L’Autrichienne, which translates to Austrian bitch. Her husband refused to pay her any attention. It is natural that she would be lonely and seek out friendship. Of course her detractors, wrote salacious libelles about her ‘Sapphic’ relationships with these women, which was absolutely untrue.
As for her spending habits, yes she did enjoy buying nice things for her apartments. And she was an avid gambler. However, the sums she spent were not out of the ordinary when compared to the royal spending habits. The royal aunts, the king, and the many courtiers who made up the royal household all spent quite a pretty penny on a regular basis on items such as clothing, furniture, and gambling. Not to mention, Marie Antoinette was philanthropic. There are well-known stories of her care for the poor and others less fortunate than the royal court. It was not in the way of the royal court to be so generous.
Marie Antoinette was indeed a pawn. She was raised by her mother in a very contradictory way. On the one hand her mother was the living embodiment of strong, powerful woman who ruled in her own right. At the same time she schooled MA in the ways of being a submissive wife while still maintaining that she should be able to her influence her future husband. She was told that she could never think of Austria as home again, and yet she was to consider Austria first when it came to politics. Louis on the other hand was brought up to thoroughly distrust Austria. He never allowed his wife any influence during their years together. This continually proved to be a sore spot between MA and her mother. MA wanted her mother’s approval but could never seem to get it.
Marie Antoinette did not seem particularly bright. She didn’t do well in her studies and her writing was dismal. She wasn’t interested in reading. She would rather pursue activities of leisure rather than fuss with books and politics. However, in her later years she would prove to have a mental acuity that belied this, pulling her through some very tight spots during the troubled time of the Revolution.
I have to admit feeling slight bemusement while reading about the attempted escape during the Revolution. It wasn’t lost on me how differently things would have played out if the Royal Party and their allies had had cell phones. Alas, they didn’t and their journey was much more treacherous because they lacked a means of communicating with their people stationed along their route. Due to a harness breaking, they were more than two hours late at their first stop. The Duc de Choiseul, who was stationed there to wait for their arrival, grew so freaked out by their delay that he jumped ship. He assumed that the King and been found out so left, spreading the word that the King had been betrayed. This whole chain of events went downhill from there. The King and Queen successfully escaped their house arrest at the Tuileries, which indeed was the riskiest part of the plan, only to be foiled by their own people.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with this book. I learned so much. My appetite for more knowledge has only been whetted, not sated, by this fascinating account of Marie Antoinette’s life. If I had the time, I’d love to hunt down some of the source material. Fraser used first hand accounts written by women who served MA in some way. I suspect those would be fascinating to read as well.
A thoroughly researched, objectively written tome detailing the life and circumstances of Marie Antoinette and her untimely demise. This book dispels the myths, creating a nuanced portrait of this complex figure in history.