Saturday, 25 July 2015

Marie Antoinette - The Journey by Antonia Fraser

I think we all have our ideas of Marie Antoinette and her life. She is, after all, one of the most famous women in history. After reading this book, I am willing to confess that my idea of her was totally wrong. She was very disliked in her life time, mainly due to the gossip of ill-willed people. Unfortunately, this picture of her has gone down through history in quite an unbelievable way. So, it is time to review this woman and see her as she was.

Antonia Fraser’s book about her life is definitively able to make us change our mind. I have had the book on my TBR shelves for some time, but not so long as some other books! I thought it would be suitable for the Paris in July month hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea. Once I started the book, it was difficult to put it down.

‘Her Majesty has been very happily delivered of a small, but completely healthy Archduchess.’
Count Khevenhüller, Court Chamberlain, 1755

Marie Antoinette was born on 2 November 1755 as the fifteenth child to Maria Teresa, Queen of Hungary by inheritance and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire by marriage. Her childhood was rather happy and not as strict as one could imagine in such a household. She was spoiled by her governess and not pushed enough to do her studies, which was to be one of her problems in later life. “One of the real betrayal in Marie Antoinette’s education was that she was never encouraged to concentrate. This ability, comparatively easy to inculcate in childhood, was generally held to be lacking in Marie Antoinette the adult, …her conversation tended to be disjointed ‘like a grasshopper’…”

The Habsburgs have been famous for extending there power sphere by marrying into the royal families of Europe. Maria Teresa had plans for all her sons and daughters and arranged it to the best. The “highest price” went to her youngest daughter who was to marry the Dauphin of France (although her elder sister was supposed to marry him, but she died young).

She was only fourteen years old when she was married. She became the Dauphine, and the head of a royal court. The Dauphin, the future Louis XVI was a young, inexperienced and rather shy man, who did not make it easier for her. It took him, or them, close to ten years before the marriage was consummated. Louis was not very interested in the act itself, but had to perform it to make his duty and produce an heir. One benefit was, contrary to other French kings, that he was faithful to his queen his whole life.

Although the Austrian court did not lack rules on how to behave, the French was a myriad of rules. Furthermore, it was often done in the open, where the royals did most of their daily deeds in front of the public. Even to get dressed meant you were surrounded by people. MA being young and spirited did not always behave as she should and she tried to introduce new rules. Being the Dauphine she could at least direct her own court. Not having so much contact with her husband, she gathered people around her that she enjoyed being with. That gave her a epitaph of “just wanting to enjoy herself”. Since education was lacking it took her several years to find her way around. Even when she wanted to share more important matters with her husband, she was not always allowed, or he ignored her. Although in later years he tended to listen to her and they became closer with the years, and when the babies started to arrive.

MA made Versailles into a fashionable court. She was interested in fashion and decorating, and being a beautiful young lady who could afford the best, she became its brightest star. She was a naturally kind person, who wanted to help, whoever was in trouble, when she saw it. It was not always comme-il-faut but if it was important for her she carried it out. She always had to thread a thin line between the different fractions of the court, even within her own family. Louis XVI’s sisters and brothers were not very fond of her, and when the brother’s wives became pregnant year after year it was a sore thing for herself. All the bad rumours about her came from people in the court who did not like her. The sad thing is that they have continued to drizzle through history up until our own time.

Louis XVI was not a strong character. He was “an honourable and conscientious young man, but even those who wished him well referred to his indecisiveness, the need for a stronger nature to dominate him, a relic no doubt of the lack of confidence inculcated during his unloved childhood.” In all important decisions he had to make, he was irresolute. He only travelled once outside Versailles and Paris for about a week, and that was later in his life. His main impression from that trip seems to have been the possibilities to hunt.

It is not entirely understandable why she was so unliked in France. Maybe because they thought that her first loyalty was Austria. This was also the case in the beginning. She had a lot of pressure to act on behalf of Austria in French politics. You wonder how they could imagine that a fourteen year old girl, with a lack of education would be able to shoulder such a task. She tried her best but did not manage very well, which did not make Maria Teresa happier. By the time she had children and realised that they were the future of France, her priorities changed, and she became very proud of being French.

She was very dutiful towards Louis and France, but when she met the Swedish military man, Axel
von Fersen, a renowned ladies man, she slowly fell in love. There has always been a question whether they actual had a physical relationship or not. It is not that easy to meet in private in such a place as Versailles without rumours going around. Antonia Fraser’s interpretation based on diaries and letters from von Fersen suggests that it was so. His own words about her is filled with love and respect. He was one of the persons involved in trying to help the king and queen escape. Due to mishaps and incompetence among the people involved it did not succeed.

Antonia Fraser has written an excellent book about a fascinating person and a fascinating time. It was difficult to put the book down. It covers her life from birth to her tragic death. I can’t help admire her and how she lived her life. She was very attached to her children. They had four but the oldest son died when he was around seven and a girl died when she was one year. The end when things are starting to go bad is very exciting, even if you know how it ends. You can think what you like about their lives, but they seemed to have met death with a courage that few people would be able to muster. What I did not know is, that their daughter Marie Thérèse was spared the guillotine. Louis Charles was executed on 8 June 1795 and the two siblings did see each other before his execution (they were held separately later on). Negotiations from Austria to free Marie Thérèse finally succeeded in December 1795, when she was seventeen.
The unhappy daughter of
Marie Antoinette

As if her ordeal had not been enough the Habsburgs and the Bourbons fought over a suitable bridegroom among her first cousins. She married Louis XVIII’s nephew the Duc d’Angoulême. Marie Thérèse did not have a happy marriage or a happy life. The marriage was probably not consummated, at least they had no children. She lived to be seventy two.

So, we come to the famous ‘cake’ quote. I quote from the book which also shows a very human side of MA.

“Now, if at all, during the period of the Flour War, was the occasion when Marie Antoinette might have uttered the notorious phrase: ‘Let them eat cake’ (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche). Instead, she indulged to her mother in a piece of reflection on the duties of royalty. Its tenor was the exact opposite of that phrase, at once callous and ignorant, so often ascribed to her. ‘It is quite certain,’ she wrote, ‘that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth; as for myself, I know that in my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget the day of the coronation.’ This was the tender-hearted Marie Antoinette who, alone among the French royal family, refused to ruin the peasants’ cornfields by riding over them, because she was well aware of the minutiae of the lives of the poor.

In fact that lethal phrase had been know for at least a century previously, when it was ascribed to the Spanish princess, Marie Thérèse, bride of Louis XIV, in a slightly different form: if there was no bread, let the people eat the crust (croûte) of the paté. It was known to Rousseau in 1737. It was credited to one of the royal aunts, Madame Sophie, in 1751, when reacting to the news that her brother the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand had been pestered with cries of ‘Bread, bread’ on a visit to Paris. The Comtesse de Boigne, who as a child played at the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, attributed the saying to another aunt, Madame Victoire. But the most convincing proof of Marie Antoinette’s innocence came from the memoirs of the Comte de Provence, published in 1823. No gallant guardian of his sister-in-law’s reputation, he remarked that eating paté en croûte always reminded him of the saying of his own ancestress, Queen Maria Thérèse. It was, in short, a royal chestnut.”

A wonderfully researched and written book that is highly recommended. It gives so much of the life of Marie Antoinette and her time. So well written, and more exciting than any thriller you can make up. For a couple of days I was entering into the glamorous, and sometimes not so glamorous life of Versailles and Paris, continued with the to the dungeons and their sad destiny. Next time I visit Versailles, I will bear in mind her life there.

Antonia Fraser has written many acclaimed historical works which seem interesting to read; Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, James VI of Scotland, I of England, King Charles II and many more. 


  1. I've had a long fascination with Marie Antoinette, another maligned woman in history. I read this one years ago and your review reminded me how much I enjoyed it. Juliet Grey's Marie Antoinette trilogy covers MA's life from 10 years to her execution, wonderful indepth look.

    1. She is really a fascinating woman! Maybe with some good biographies, people will discover that she was not the silly goose that people thought her to be.