217 of 224 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly engrossing biography
True or false? 1) Marie Antoinette was a frivolous princess who became a clever, manipulative queen 2) She ruled France through her weak husband 3) She said of the bread-less French, "Let them eat cake." 4) In her spare time, she enjoyed dressing as a milk maid and wandering around a fake farm she had built at Versailles. If you answered "true" to any of these...
Published on November 25, 2001 by Amazon Customer
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read, but what happened to the facts?
Like all her previous historical biographies, Antonia Fraser's MARIE ANTOINETTE is extremely well written and insightful. Unfortunately, there are pages and pages of factual errors which jump out to those of us who have read almost every book written on the queen and which lead me to question one of my fellow reviewers' comments about her "impeccable...
Published on January 11, 2002 by Joe R. Parker
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217 of 224 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly engrossing biography,
True or false? 1) Marie Antoinette was a frivolous princess who became a clever, manipulative queen 2) She ruled France through her weak husband 3) She said of the bread-less French, "Let them eat cake." 4) In her spare time, she enjoyed dressing as a milk maid and wandering around a fake farm she had built at Versailles. If you answered "true" to any of these questions, you will want to read Antonia Fraser's detailed, engrossing biography of Marie Antoinette. Fraser's work is well-documented and scholarly, but it is neither dry nor slow reading. She provides sufficient background information to put the historical events in context, but does not allow the facts to hinder the flow of the story. Her writing has an immediacy that pulls the reader so deeply into the story, it is easy to forget that we already know the ending of this historical life. (When the royal family attempts to escape their French captors, Fraser allows us to think-to hope-they might get away.) Through Fraser's eyes, we first sympathize, and then empathize with the princess who only became queen by accident. In addition, Frazer gives us a thorough education in the social order at Versailles, the complex bureaucracy (and attendant jobs) of the French court, and the political infighting that ultimately was the downfall of the entire system. This is a thoroughly engrossing biography-a keeper.
129 of 135 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A First-Rate Historical Biography!,
This is only the second book that I've read by Antonia Fraser, the other one being her last, Faith and Treason. Although I enjoyed that book well enough (for Fraser is a very capable writer, able to both capture and hold the reader's attention), I was more than a little uncomfortable with the obvious bias that shone through an otherwise excellent treatment of England's Gunpowder Plot. I was hesitant, therefore, about purchasing this one; but as it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed this 488-page hardcover (with 429 pages of actual text). I found it to be enthralling, captivating, eye-opening, informative, and insightful, making it a joy to read and a book that I could not wait to get back to. Additionally, it is amply illustrated (48 pages, mostly colour), and I found Fraser's treatment to be fairly thorough (though perhaps not quite so thorough as I've come to expect with Alison Weir's books). Most importantly, I came away from the book with not only a greater knowledge and understanding of (not to mention sympathy for) one of the most famous women in history, but a much deeper understanding of the French Revolution and of the various factors leading up to it.
Fraser does write in a manner that is sympathetic to Antoinette. I do feel authors of historical subjects ought to be as objective as possible; perhaps, though, it is as Fraser says: "[I]s [looking without passion] really possible with regard to the career and character of Marie Antoinette?" (p. 422). This was a woman who, in her lifetime, was either greatly admired or vehemently loathed (sentiments which don't seem to have softened much with the passage of time). More significantly, however, this was a woman who was clearly maligned. Like the rest of us, she had her faults (which are certainly not glossed over by Fraser), but surely no one who has even an ounce of compassion (whether he or she be detractor or admirer) could think that this woman deserved the callous treatment she received and the abject humiliations to which she was subjected.
Antoinette appears, in spite of her faults, to have been primarily a compassionate and kind-hearted (if not overly intelligent) woman. Nevertheless, she had the misfortune of being by accident of birth of royal blood (and Austrian blood at that) and, by the machinations of a domineering mother, queen consort to the king of France at a time when the French court was, in essence, an opulent fish bowl. As a result, Antoinette had the additional misfortune of being at the mercy of libelists intent on her destruction (at a time when there were obviously no libel laws). With reference to Louis XVI, Fraser makes a comment equally applicable to Antoinette: She was hated, not for what she did, but for who she was (ie. a foreigner and a representative of the old order). Any legitimate faults she may have had were, it would seem, merely surplus to requirement for a woman who already had more than enough black marks against her.
Those who think that horror and tragedy are the domain of novelists would be well advised to think again. Just as fiction can scarcely approach the horror of recent world events, there is nothing in the realm of fiction that can even come close to the attitudes, injustices, abominations, and humiliations that occurred during the French Revolution to humankind in general and French royalty in particular. If you've steered clear of history books before for fear that they must, by necessity, be dry and boring, I can't recommend this book highly enough. And if you've enjoyed it, I strongly recommend Stephen Coote's highly-readable Royal Survivor (on the life of England's Charles II) or anything by Alison Weir. For me, this book has awakened a hunger to learn more about late 18th century Europe and some of Antoinette's more colourful contemporaries (such as England`s George III and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire).
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Daughter, Wife, Mother; Queen, Pawn...Scapegoat,
With "Marie Antoinette", Lady Antonia Fraser has written one of the more memorable biographies of recent years. She has taken a woman who had been turned into a caricature, a "poster-child" for a "typical" example of reactionary, frivolous royalty, and turned her into a real, and sympathetic, human being. And, if Lady Antonia has perhaps stacked the deck a bit too much in favor of her subject- playing up her positive qualities and playing down her negative ones- by the time you reach the end of the book your gut feeling is that you really can't blame her. For this was a woman who, before she was physically destroyed by the forces of revolution, had been emotionally worn down by years of abuse at the hands of her political enemies. This was a woman who had very high moral standards, yet was constantly being accused in the pamphlets of the time of being heterosexually and homosexually promiscuous; a generous, sensitive and intelligent woman accused of being selfish, heartless and stupid; a woman who wasn't a political animal- who wanted to do "good works" and to be a good wife and mother- but was subjected to pressure right after her marriage (by her mother Maria Teresa) to do what was best for Austria rather than what was best for France. Even if Antoinette had been politically inclined, her influence was never very great- Louis XVI, despite what the pamphlets said about him, was far from being a fool. His main interest may have been hunting, but he was intelligent, well-read, and he had a mind of his own. (And he had been warned in his youth to be wary of wily Austrian women!) But after years of anti-Antoinette and "fool Louis" propaganda, the people were primed to mistrust and hate "The Austrian Woman". As the saying goes, if you say something loudly enough and often enough people will start to believe it. When conditions in France got bad enough, the people knew who to blame. Louis and Antoinette could easily have been exiled. But the intellectuals in charge of the revolution had the precedent of the execution of Charles I of England. And, as intellectuals sometimes do, they gave more weight to abstract ideas and ideals than to acting in a humane manner. (They thought that Antoinette's death would "unite them in blood"- whatever that was supposed to mean.) In an eerie precursor to the Stalinist show trials of the 20th century, Marie was put on trial. The outcome was decided ahead of time, and so was never in doubt. She was not allowed to prepare a proper defense. Unsubstantiated accusations were made and hearsay was accepted as evidence. Just to be sure, the 8 year old Dauphin, one of whose testicles had been damaged while playing, was brainwashed by his jailers into making allegations of sexual abuse against his own mother. The allegations weren't true but, due to the corrosive influence of the pamphleteers over the course of many years, the people were ready to believe anything. Despite being ill and suffering from sleep deprivation, Antoinette defended herself with intelligence and dignity. Once the inevitable verdict was reached, she met her death with undiminished courage. (Indeed, at this point, after 4 years of her and her family being terrorized and abused, and after the execution of her husband, she welcomed death.) This book should be required reading, not only because it gives Marie Antoinette "the day in court" that she never really had in her lifetime but because it never lets us forget her humanity. It also shows us the disturbing power of propaganda, which is something just as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. For, despite the best efforts of Lady Antonia Fraser, I'm afraid that Marie Antoinette will always be known for something she never said and, considering her concern for the French people, something she never would have said...."Let them eat cake!"
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Antonia Fraser Has Done It Again,
As in the case of her history of "Mary, Queen of Scots," Antonia Fraser has taken a much mis-understood and maligned Queen and told her story with as much clarity and understanding as possible. Used by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, as a pawn for European politics, Marie Antoinette was thrust into the vicious and decadent French court at an early age and had to endure years of humiliation from all sides because of her seemingly inability to produce an heir to the French throne (the Daulphin's impotence and stupidity notwithstanding). Once an heir was produced, three more children followed of which two died young. Lady Fraser is very adept at balancing Marie Antoinette's faults as well as her virtues in producing a portrait of a woman forced by circumstance to go her own way through French politics - because of this, she created many loyal friends and dangerous enemies. Her long time affair with Count Fersen as well as the diamond necklace fiasco has been told with clarity which finally puts to rest the many distortions and lies which have been handed down by less astute (and bias) historians. The final chapter is heart-rending to say the least, in which one finally glimpses Marie Antoinette's final hours in which she goes to her death serenely and forgives her enemies (the blood of Mary Stuart prevails at the end). Thank you Antonia for a truly unique reading experience.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read, but what happened to the facts?,
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Like all her previous historical biographies, Antonia Fraser's MARIE ANTOINETTE is extremely well written and insightful. Unfortunately, there are pages and pages of factual errors which jump out to those of us who have read almost every book written on the queen and which lead me to question one of my fellow reviewers' comments about her "impeccable scholarship". Ms. Fraser even gets the location of the queen's execution wrong! Her editor must be receiving indignant letters from the queen's other biographers in droves. As always, however, a very enjoyable read.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic!,
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This review is from: Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Paperback)
Don't be afraid of this big-boned bio of Marie Antoinette, it has everything you need. It's elegantly paced and beautifully construed. Fraser's work is just the best. She knows when to leave a topic, when to move on. HOW to move on. This is first rate writing from a consistently fine writer. The book is sypathetic toward Marie Antoinette, on occasion even moving; Fraser illuminates from the inside out with her subjects, and we're the winners for that. The book's full of marvelous detail about court life, yet seen through new eyes, perhaps Marie Antoinette's eyes. Fraser lingers on the Queen's Austrian life before Versailles long enough to lead us to new lights about this woman's suffering on account of her extraordinary temperment. It's an altogether admirable effort. If the book seems light on Fersen, look again. His place in Marie Antoinette's life undulates through the narrative like a slow fire. This is one of the few authoritative books about Marie Antoinette that truly witnesses the mystery. Pre-Revolutionary France bleeds through the pages. Fraser writes like an entranced surgeon; her preparation, her immaculate discernment of good sources is unmatched. An essential book about astonishing things.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography as it should be,
Back on Sept 20, 1975, I read Stefan Zweig's biography of Marie Antoinette and said of it to myself: "Footnotes and bibliography are essential to a real biography." Since time is limited I usually do not read a second biography of a person, but when I saw Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette I knew I would have to read it, remembering, as I did, with pleasure her great biographies of Mary Queen of Scots (read Mar 7, 1970) and of Cromwell (read June 18, 2000). This is a biography written as good biography should be written: chronologically, with footnotes and a 12-page bibliography. A touch I appreciated is that the author has visited the sites where Marie Antoinette was and tells what is to be seen there now. She even makes reference to the fantastic apparition supposedly viewed by Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain on Aug 10, 1901! This is an immensely satisfying book, and well worth the time spent reading it, IMHO.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like Reading a Train Wreck,
Marie Antoinette's story is such a sad one..reading Antonia Fraser's book is like watching a video of an accident. You know how it's going to end, but the people in the story don't.
Ms. Fraser inexorably sets up the events leading to the demise of the royal family in the French Revolution. She paints a sympathetic picture of Marie Antoinette, but leaves the reader to decide if she deserved to be as reviled as she was. It is beautifully researched and well written (as are other Fraser biographies, in my opinion).
Thomas Jefferson, in Paris during the events that led up to the beheading of the Queen, said (and this is paraphrased:) "There is no doubt that there would not have been a Revolution if Marie Antoinette had not been the Queen of France." Do you agree? I'm not so sure.
52 of 65 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing biography,
This review is from: Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Paperback)
Having been a fan of Antonia Fraser for many years, I highly anticipated her biography of Queen Marie-Antoinette, but have been very disappointed in that she often chooses the sensational over the factual. She depicts Marie-Antoinette's mother Empress Maria Theresa as heartless and calculating for sending her daughter to France at age 14 to get married, but arranged marriages were the norm; the empress was not doing anything out of the ordinary. What startled me most is that Fraser not only insists on Antoinette having an affair with Count Axel von Fersen, of which there is little concrete evidence, but goes onto maintain that Axel used condoms to keep the queen from getting pregnant. It seems to me that Marie-Antoinette loved children so much; she came from a family of sixteen where children were valued and her more liberal sister Caroline went on to have eleven children or more. She was also a devout Catholic and using such devices were unthinkable, unless one was a prostitute or dealing with prostitutes. In this case Fraser is applying the morals of some British aristocratic ladies to a queen of France. If Marie-Antoinette had been caught in adultery, it would have been considered treason; she would have been sent to a convent and had her children taken away from her. With all of her enemies at Court, that was not a risk she would have taken, if she had been so inclined. On a smaller scale, Fraser makes ridiculous assertions about Marie-Antoinette dyeing her hair - in all the pictures that I have seen of her, her hair looks grey from either powder or premature age; I have never read any first hand accounts of her dyeing it. Not that that is a big deal; but it makes me wonder where Lady Fraser's life ends and where Marie-Antoinette's life begins. I found it offensive that at the end Fraser interprets Marie-Antoinette's death as some kind of sacrifice for the cause of democracy, when she believed in monarchy and wanted her little son to be king. Especially, since Marie-Antoinette's murder was followed not by democracy but by dictatorships and Napoleon crowning himslf emperor. Sadly, there is a lacuna of decent biographies of the queen in the English language. One can only hope that the works of Bertieres, Chalon, and Delorme will soon be translated and published in English. Fraser's book does have some interesting details (aside from those which flow from her imagination) and it is much more sympathetic to the queen than Lever's travesty.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Story of a Symbol Who Was Sadly All Too Human,
I was thoroughly engaged by this moderately long book and its comprehensive historical detail. In the end, I became utterly sympathetic with the sad fate of Queen Marie Antoinette, political chattel and scapegoat, who, for those various individuals and groups who controlled her fate, represented very little that was human, and always seemed to be some broker's means to a power-seeking end.
Fraser's writing lays out the story of Marie Antoinette's life with objectivity, and builds a subtle position that is supported by the information she includes in this volume. Archduchess of Austria Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, 15th child of Maria Teresa, Queen of Hungary and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire (by her marriage to Emperor Francis Stephen), was destined by her mother's strong will to be married to European royalty as an effort to shore up Austria's political interests in Europe (which was, of course, what royal children were for). Maria Antoine's childhood was one of some personal and emotional neglect, and she was married to the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste (later Louis XVI), when she was 14. (This means she left her home, her native language, her siblings and all her own customs at that age, never to return and rarely to see a member of her own family again.)
Marie Antoinette became queen of France when she was 19. While her life was certainly luxurious and extravagant, she was not a leader or instigator of this culture -- she was merely assimilating with the culture of Versailles. She began her time in France under a somewhat positive light, though the French were always suspicious of her machinations in favor of Austria and the emperor (later Joseph, her brother, and then Leopold, her nephew). Her love of music brought her some influence and popularity, but the expectations from Austria that she would influence her husband in matters of policy were not often met. Louis XVI chose advisers consistently who were anti-Austria. Politics were never her forte, anyway, as her education had been somewhat neglected as a child. She was, however, kind and charitable, still living extravagantly to symbolize the wealth and prestige of the French royal household. Her inability to influence the political playing field brought her criticism from home as long as her mother lived, but her suspected wielding of her influence brought her endless criticism and personal attacks in France.
Her lifestyle included almost no privacy, as she was awakened by a full bedchamber of aristocrats and royals eager to press their access to help her dress, etc. She developed close friendships with several courtiers to replace the closeness with her sisters that she had lost. The most upsetting aspect of her public existence was the public knowledge that her marriage was unconsummated for as long as seven years, at which point, Marie Antoinette did conceive a child, a daughter, Marie Therese, the Madame Royale (who was born publically in the royal bedchamber in front of hundreds of courtiers). For her other children, there were health difficulties: the first dauphin, Louis Joseph, died of consumption, her fourth child, Sophie, died shortly after birth, and her third child, the second dauphin, Louis Charles, died during captivity in Paris of what also was likely consumption. Problems with her reproductive organs plagued Marie Antoinette, and Fraser speculates that she had cancer when she was beheaded.
The extravagance of Marie Antoinette's life lessened as she grew older, as she was a doting and attentive mother to her children and took great care with their education and upbringing. She also seemed to build a loving and close relationship with Louis XVI. She was at the forefront of a trend to simplify and live less luxuriously. Fraser successfully rebuts the myth that Marie Antoinette stated, "Let them eat cake" about the French peasants during a bread crisis, as that would have been counter to what is known of her charitable and philanthropic nature.
But as her extravagant lifestyle lessened with her maturity and the trends of the day, her fortunes were bottoming out in the public eye. The Affair of the Necklace (which gets complete treatment here) harmed her, and the endless criticism of Marie Antoinette in the tabloid press, some of it literally pornographic, kept a solid tide of negativity rolling her way. Coupled with her husband's weak resolve and lack of leadership as a king, Marie Antoinette became doomed...
Another aspect of Marie Antoinette's story that I was completely ignorant of is the length of time that spanned the storming of the Bastille and her execution in Paris. I had in mind that there were mere days or months between them, but, in fact, it was about four years that included various stages of captivity, political surges and trials. This stage of the book is also comprehensive and draws a plaintive picture of Marie Antoinette again as political tool, this time for those who wanted to show their strength and anti-royalist beliefs. The portrait Fraser paints of Marie Antoinette during this time is as an increasingly strong, religious, and dedicated French woman, suffering as gracefully as possible for the sake of her family and her adopted country.
Marie Antoinette was not perfect -- and her weaknesses including what is likely a long affair with a Swedish aristocrate, Count Fersen -- but her life ended horrifically (she was already a widow for some months and separated from her two surviving children) while she maintained the regal composure she was always known for. For exmaple, she apologized to her executioner at the gallows when she accidentally stepped on his foot when she stumbled to walk with her hands bound behind her. In fact, it is said that she greeted her death as an end to her torture. Her death, like her marriage, was brought to her for her symbolic exhistence, not the human life she lived.
Fraser's book is exceedingly well written, and I was sad when it was over, as I loved spending time with Marie Antoinette. In fact, during a chapter that recounted how she and the king, the dauphin and Madame Royale were trying to escape Paris and their imprisonment, I sincerely hoped they would escape! I found myself thinking about her a great deal, and missing her when I could not open the book and read about her life. This is to me the greatest testament to a well-written biography. Her life and plight, as presented by Fraser, were very real to me, and isn't that what we read biographies for?
I STRONGLY recommend this book!
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Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (Paperback - November 12, 2002)