Before reading this, I had very little knowledge of the French Revolution. Indeed I still have little knowledge but reading this has done what I can only describe as opening a flood gate of emotion and a thirst for more knowledge on a very dark period in history. I recall being told stories as I was growing up, that my ancestors on my mothers side of the family fled from France to England during the Revolution to escape the Guillotine, and whilst I am unsure whether to actually believe these stories (who knows, they may be true), I suppose I have always had a rather morbid fascination with this period which, until now, I have never done anything about. Now before I go any further I would like to thank MadameGuillotine for recommending this book to me – it has proved to be a fantastic read and one that has opened that aforementioned flood gate of full blown emotion!
Now onto the review!
I have read books by Antonia Fraser in the past and I have to say that I was less than impressed with them. Whilst her biography of Charles II had a damn good go at making the dry parts of his history more accessible, it kind of fell short of the mark. And her book the Six Wives of Henry VIII just read exactly like every other book on Henry’s wives. With this book however, I was more than pleasantly surprised. From the moment I picked it up I found myself immersed in the world of Versailles, found myself tearing up as Marie Antoinette’s story came to it’s horrific end. I will say now that Fraser has done a remarkable job with this book, her writing flows beautifully and as you read you can (or at least I could) picture the sumptuous elegance of the French court, could imagine the beautiful gowns that Marie Antoinette wore, felt her embarrassment in the early days of her marriage when the entire court knew that her marriage to Louise XVI went unconsummated. It’s not often that a history text allows me to feel so connected to the subject I am reading about, and for making me feel this way I really must applaud Antonia Fraser.
The book itself starts, of course, with the birth of Marie Antoinette to the Empress Maria Teresa on 2nd November 1755 and details her upbringing alongside her many brothers and sisters. The “Small but completely healthy Archduchess” had a carefree childhood, growing up in the Viennese Court which often lacked strict protocol – something which Marie Antoinette would have to deal with when she arrived at Versailles much later – and the little Antoine, as she was called growing up, ended up developing a very close relationship with her sister Maria Carolina. These two girls were close in age and retained a close relationship all their lives, despite the distance that separated them. We are also told of Marie Antoinette’s education, or rather lack of it, which would later lead to the French believing her to be unintelligent. Her lack of education wasn’t down to poor teaching, but rather down to her lack of concentration, and whilst she loved learning music and Italian, she seemed rather unwilling to complete much of any other work. Of course, Marie Antoinette was used as a political pawn by her mother (more so after the death of the Emperor Francis I) and against a backdrop of complex alliance treaties and wars she was betrothed to the French Dauphin Louis August.
Reading the chapters on Marie’s travels to France, her marriage to Louis and the sumptuous court of Versailles felt like an attack on the senses. When she arrived in France she was no longer the Archduchess of Vienna, but the Dauphine of France and the future Queen. This young woman would have no idea where this life would take her, for now she was surrounded by an extravagant court filled with gossip, she would have so many beautiful things at her finger tips. Her reception in France was incredibly enthusiastic, with children handing her flowers as she passed, and when someone addressed her in German she told them to speak to her in French, as she was now a French woman.
Her years at Versailles as the Dauphine of France were filled with extravagance and sadly, embarrassment. When I watched Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and saw the story of how the marriage went unconsummated between herself and Louis I could hardly believe it – surely it couldn’t be true? Research told me it was, and reading the chapters in Fraser’s book confirmed it. Why did the marriage go unconsummated for so long? It was said that Louis had certain medical issues that stopped him from making love to his wife, but quite honestly I believe that it was nerves. Louis-August was, after all, not the most forthcoming of young men, and came across in Fraser’s work as a very shy young man. It did in fact take the couple many years to consummate their marriage, despite the growing fondness between the royal couple. It should also be noted that Marie Antoinette’s relationship with Madame Du Barry played a huge part in her early years at Versailles. Madame Du Barry was the mistress of Louise XV and universally hated, so much so that the hatred rubbed off on Marie Antoinette – so much so that for a long time she refused to acknowledge the King’s favourite. Pressure from her mother and the Austrian minister meant that Marie eventually spoke with Du Barry, and the favourite was satisfied.
On 11th June 1775 Louise XV died, meaning that Louis August became Louise XVI, and Marie Antoinette became Queen of France. During her early years as Queen, Marie Antoinette hosted many parties, and loved to gamble. She also renovated the Petit Trianon, a gift given to her by Louise XVI. Their marriage was eventually consummated in 1777, and on 19th December 1778 Marie Antoinette gave birth to a daughter who was named Marie-Therese. Following the birth, due to the stifling atmosphere in the room thanks to the crush of people watching, she collapsed. The King had the windows open to revive her and following this incident courtiers were banned from the birthing room. The Queen gave birth to a son in 1781, the long awaited Dauphin and heir to the French throne. France was of course ecstatic at the news.
Yet amongst the happiness, the popularity of the French Queen was slowly declining.
After the birth of her second son Louis Charles in 1785, and a second daughter in 1786 (though who sadly died in June 1787); the wheels of revolution were turning. The financial situation in France was getting worse, and the Royal family were blamed for much of it. Due to a need to pass much needed reforms, Louis XVI was forced to recall the Assembly of Notables after Parlamente refused to help. It was a failure, and during this time Marie began to abandon her more carefree exploits to take more of a part in politics, not only because she was the mother of the future King of France but also to regain her reputation after the Diamond Necklace Affair in which she was accused of defrauding the crown jewellers.
During 1778-1789, the price of bread began to rise, due to the failure to reform the countries finances. At the same time, the health of the young Dauphin Louis-Joseph began to decline. And riots started to break out in Paris, whilst the public hissed at the Queen and shouted insults. And as Louis-Joseph passed away from tuberculosis, leaving the title of Dauphin to his younger brother Louis-Charles; the National Assembly was created and the French people ignored the death of their Dauphin.
The famous storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 heralded everything that the Revolution stood for, and as Paris erupted in riots, Louis tried to halt the pushing forward of the National Assembly with little success. As many nobles fled France at this time, desperate to escape the revolution, Marie Antoinette made the decision to stay with her husband. Yet on 5th October, Versailles was stormed, forcing the royal family to move to Paris under constant guard. Yet all the time hatred was thrown at Marie Antoinette, libelles were published accusing her of having affairs, reiterating the stories from years previously that she had been involved in lesbian relationships. Yet she held her head high. It was during this time that an escape was attempted (and I loved this story as Fraser told it, despite it’s sad ending) when the Royal Family escaped from Paris and tried to make their way to Montmedy – the plot failed, and the family were arrested at Varennes on 22nd July 1791. On 13th August the royal family were imprisoned at the Tower at the Temple of Marais. This was the last place that Louise XVI would ever see, and indeed one of the last places that Marie’s loyal friend the Princesse De Lamballe would ever see. The Princesse was taken for interrogation and transferred to the Prison at La Force – she was horrifically killed in the September massacres and her severed head paraded at the windows of The Tower on a pike. The story of the Princesse is a truly horrific one which deserves its own post later. Upon learning the fate of her friend, Marie Antoinette fainted. On 21st September, it was announced that the monarchy no longer existed in France and would be ruled by the Assembly and the Royal family had to re brand themselves with the last name Capet. In December, Louise was separated from his family and tried for crimes against the country – he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His death would come at the hands of the gruesome contraption known as the Guillotine on 21st January 1793.
Following Louis’ death, Marie Antoinette went into a deep mourning and wore black almost constantly. For a while she refused to eat or do any exercise. Her health declined and according to Fraser, she bled often and may have began to suffer with tuberculosis and uterine cancer. She was becoming a shadow of her former self, so much so that at her own trial her appearance shocked those present. She was tried on 14th October and accused of incest with her son, inciting orgies at Versailles and sending money to Austria as well as many other unbelievable accusations. The trial was a sham, her fate had already been predetermined; she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Back in her cell at the Conciergerie, where she had been moved following the death of her husband, she composed her last letter to her sister in law. The letter never reached Madame Elisabeth. On that same same, the 16th October 1793, Marie’s now white hair was cut off and she was driven to the Place De La Concorde (then known as the Place De La Revolution) in the back of a horse and cart. As she walked up the scaffold, she stepped on the executioners foot and she apologised, her last words “Pardon me Sir, I meant not to do it”. Following her swift death at around 12.15pm, her body was thrown into an unmarked grave, the same place where her husband had been buried nine months earlier. Their bodies were exhumed in 1815 during the Bourbon restoration and reburied at the Cathedral of St Denis.
Fraser has done an exceptional job in telling the story of Marie Antoinette and her life. She has really managed to capture the ups and downs of this remarkable woman’s life, and by the end of the book I was sobbing. whilst above I have only given a brief review of the story, there were many moments which made me cry. The story of the Princesse De Lamballe, the brainwashing of Louis-Charles and indeed the last moments of Marie Antoinette. It is an incredibly moving story – this woman’s only mistake was to be Austrian, and Queen of France. To me it seemed as if the common people blamed her for their troubles which is highly unfair. Despite her spending extravagantly on her own pleasure, Marie Antoinette took part in charitable works, and the stories of her sexual deviance are little more than…well, just that, stories. Whilst she may have had a sexual relationship with Count Fersen, much of what was told in the later Libelles were just horrible stories made up to discredit this woman. She was certainly no she wolf, and Fraser paints her in a very sympathetic light. As I mentioned previously Fraser’s writing style flows beautifully and really helps weave Marie Antoinette’s story onto the page. This book has really made me thirst for more knowledge on Marie Antoinette and the Revolution, and not only that has completely turned my opinion of Fraser’s works around – so much so that I may give her book on Charles II another go!
Expect more posts on Marie Antoinette on this blog in the future, and in particular the Princesse De Lambelle!!