Most helpful critical review
Sentimental look at Marie Antoinettes life
on November 1, 2015
I had many issues with this book. I bought Antonia Fraser's book based on many of the positive reviews I read here and because I found the subject of Marie Antoinette fascinating, but I had little background in French history, in general, or the French Revolution, in particular. This caused quite a problem.
First, readers like me should be forewarned that if they do not have this historical background as I mentioned above, they will have a hard time following some of the background events. Antonia Fraser assumes the reader is educated in all this history, so she casually mentions people and events without giving any context or background information. Among other examples, I had to research the Diamond Necklace episode from other sources, because I could not tell from Fraser's book exactly what happened, in what context it was happening or what the real political problem was and why she was blamed for all this. Thankfully, I read Deborah Cadbury's book "The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette's Favourite Son" right after and gained a much clearer and concise overview of this event and the whole of the French Revolution, for that matter. Furthermore, her writing style is unclear and she often mentions the numerous family and courtiers surrounding Marie Antoinette without reminding us who they are and how they are relevant. Again, the author assumes we know all this.
Second, I too, felt that the author was quite apologetic for all of Marie Antoinette's weaknesses and problems. All are explained away as being the result of youth, bad education, a strict mother, few friends, ostracism from politics, etc...She is never forced to assume responsibility for herself or for the country of which she is Queen. In truth, the Court of Versailles was out of touch with the realities of French society and the severe economic problems that were plaguing it. The unpopularity and ultimate execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette must be seen in this context, but here Antonia Fraser fails us. Until the end, she is consistently excused for everything, some external injustice being committed against her. That is not to say that she deserved to have her head cut off, but it is important to have a more balanced perspective on just who she was and represented and what she had done as monarch of France.
Third, along the same lines as above, Fraser consistently presents Marie Antoinette as noble, graceful, and caring to all who encounter her. In fact, she often goes out of her way to present her like this, by explaining away many of the inconsistencies that might alter this picture. She does this by presupposing thoughts, feelings, and even actions on the part of many of the people surrounding Marie Antoinette and on the Queen herself.
All that being said, however, it is clear that Antonia Fraser has given us a much broader view of Marie Antoinette than history has provided us until now. We can see from where she came, her childhood and education, and her life at the court of Versailles. This context helps us to understand more fully why she behaved in such a manner and does give a more complete picture of Marie Antoinette in all her roles as wife, mother, and Queen. It seems that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette came to love and rely on each other, and their last years together are touching and poignant. I enjoyed this private look into her life, but due to the deficiencies above I can only give it three stars.