March is women’s history month and will be the theme for the rest of my book reviews for this month; a great excuse to get through some fascinating biographies!
I’ve been super busy these last few weeks with work so have been relying on audiobooks to avoid a repeat of February; where I got through one single solitary book! At least with the Audible app, I can listen in the car on the way to work, while I’m getting ready in the morning and on the odd tea break.
My first choice for Women’s History March was Lady Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. It’s a sizeable volume; charting over 18 hours as an audiobook and provides a balanced and enthralling tale of one of history’s most famous queens. Lady Antonia reveals at the end of the book that only Napoleon is more famous in terms of searches and queries re French history.
Marie Antoinette is a character around whom many myths and legends were built: the infamous ‘let them eat cake’ being among the most prominent. This biography brushes aside the many falsehoods and paints an enthralling picture of a woman who had manifest faults but who was never the haughty, heartless viper she was painted as by the men of the Revolution. It’s also thankfully free of all the retrospective psycho-analysis that bothered me in Stefan Zweig’s biography.
The social and political situation of pre-revolutionary France was a powder keg waiting to erupt and its monarchs could not have been less suited to the time. One of the more poignant themes that struck me throughout the biography was the fact that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette should really never have been on the throne at all. Louis’s father died at aged 36 and his elder brother (also called Louis) died aged 9; it was to both of these individuals that the throne of France should have gone. Consequently, the education of the awkward, indecisive second son was initially much neglected.
Similarly, Marie Antoinette was never meant to become Queen of France. After the death of her sister Maria Josepha from small pox, the remaining Austrian Archduchesses all moved up one place in the order of royal marriages and so she was elevated to be the chosen bride of the dauphin. Like Louis, her education had been much neglected as she was a lesser child, and this impacted them both later on.
The book, though sympathetic, is a thoroughly balanced one. Lady Antoinia touches frankly on the queen’s myriad of faults: she was extravagant to the point of profligacy, she was (particularly in her younger years) frivolous, often ignorant and she was stubborn. However, the author also provides evidence of habitual kindness, generosity and, with the fall of the monarchy, an infinite well of dignity.
It was a tremendously interesting biography, wonderfully narrated by Eleanor Bron, with a wealth of detailed research. Lady Antonia refers to Marie Antoinette’s private correspondence throughout, as well as the accounts of more public figures at the time. Her style is informative yet often poignant and really emphasises the incredible brutality that accompanied the much-needed reforms in French society.
What really became clear to me throughout this book though, and made it feel a pertinent choice for this month, was that Marie Antoinette’s real fault was that the was both a woman and a foreigner. She was in turns blamed by the people of France for having too much influence over her weak indecisive husband and at the same time castigated by her Emperor brothers for not having any influence at all. She was derided as a slattern and accused of sleeping with anything that moved; regarded as having full-blown orgies at Versailles. When helping the American Revolutionaries escape British rule virtually bankrupted France, she was accused of secretly funnelling that money away to Austria.
Her treatment by the revolutionaries fully emphasised the intrinsic misogyny of the time. Louis was the nominal ruler of France, she merely his consort, yet her treatment was considerably rougher and more brutal. He was given days to prepare for his trial and was permitted some semblance of dignity at the end. Marie Antoinette by contrast was given nothing; even being denied the privacy to change her clothes on the day of her execution. How little has changed – it’s very easy to heap the blame on someone who is ‘other’ and Marie Antoinette, for all her very genuine faults, had her adult life dictated by that.
A very worthwhile read or listen if you’re interested in women’s history or the history of France!
My rating: 4/5