Historical non-fiction, as related to royal-women of the ages, has always fascinated me. Their lives were lived in an indulgent manner as foreign to me as the countries they ruled and customs they followed. Still I repeatedly find myself picking-through the next Allison Weir…indulging in the fast-paced historical-fiction of Phillipa Gregory…plodding through the dense and well documented non-fiction biographies of Nancy Goldstone…I always come-back.
The inescapable draw being, I believe, the simple humanity that connects these very REAL women. Yes, they were queens…yes they lived lives filled with eccentricities that very few will ever match and yet they were also mothers, daughters, wives, lovers…they experienced great achievements alongside terrible failures…they celebrated and they grieved and they did so…much like ANY OTHER WOMAN…with all of their hearts.
The main difference, unlike other-women, their successes as much as their failures were witnessed and then judged by their entire countries, and for some, the world. So perhaps it is the magnification of human experience that intrigues. Many of these women chose lives in which decisions cost them blood…both loved ones’ as well as their own. And none so ill-fated a story than that of Marie Antoinette.
Antonia Fraser’s novel, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, based on the true events of Marie Antoinette’s life from childhood until her death at the age of 38, depicts the complexities of politics and culture that cast this French Queen as such a rebellious and infamous historical figure. I have Quoted the novel and film based-on-the-novel (Directed by Sophia Coppola) extensively here as well as in my other blog (www.nymphobrainiac.wordpress.com) and even attempted to embody Madame Antoinette for this past Halloween.
Much has been said about this notorious French royal and yet not much is fact. However, we have Antonia Fraser’s widely read (2001) novel to thank for illuminating much of the truths about this historically monumental woman’s life. As one might guess, Marie Antoinette’s life was not all indulgence and golden opportunities…rather as a foreign-born princess she was to forever to remain a political outsider to her people and political pawn to her family.
Volleyed between her duties as French sovereign and Queen of one of the wealthiest political powers of the 18th century and the political designs of her overbearing mother, the ruling Queen of Austria; Fraser describes for us a very young woman who early in her rule (beginning at the age of 14), caught between these two dialectical forces, chose to indulge in the superficialities of life. She was fashionable, she was fun, she threw great galas, she sang, she acted, she traveled, she gambled, ALL to excess.
And yet, she was also a great supporter of charities, particularly those that catered to women and children. Marie Antoinette was singularly responsible for the rise of fashion in Paris and supported all of the arts equally. She truly gave as much as she got. She was a “glittering star” of the era…and unfortunately, the perfect scape-goat for all that the common-people despised about the inequities of the French royal rule.
Enter…1789…The French Revolution.
Without an adept political voice to defend herself, nor the savvy to predict what danger she and her family were in…the fall of the French royalty was swift. Immediately The King’s power was stripped and much of the royal cabinet was imprisoned or be-headed; there were a few botched escape attempts of the royal family and then the final imprisonment of The King, Queen and their young children.
Their story is iconic and well documented in history books, however I believe that Fraser does a particularly good job of depicting a uniquely perceptive version of these events. We feel for The Queen and her naieve understanding of the political views that would eventually seal her fate, her undying commitment to The King…refusing to leave him even when she could have escaped safely alone…and above all her love for her children…a love that guided her every decision in her life…and at the time of her eventual death.
Fraser paints for us a woman…caught in the political circumstances of an extraordinary life…which perhaps seemed to always be just out of her grasp.
She was a lover of the pleasures of life and conceivably as a princess, not properly endowed with the adequate skill to navigate life’s many displeasures.
She did NOT say, “Let them eat cake!”
She DID say…to her sister-in-law, on the day of her beheading:
‘I have just been condemned to death, not a shameful death, that can only be for criminals, but in order to rejoin your brother (The King). Innocent like him, i hope to demonstrate the same firmness as he did at the end. I am calm, as people whose conscience is clear. My deepest regret is having to abandon our poor children; you know that I lived only for them and for you, my good and tender sister’ (Marie Antoinette, p.495)
Marie Antoinette is an honest portrayal of an alternately despised and celebrated character in our world-history. Let me re-phrase that, Marie Antoinette is a literary portrayal of a woman honest, to her heart. Thank you, Antonia Fraser…for your ability to weave historical fact with palpable feeling with the lightest of touch.
Great read guys…pick it up and DIG IN! xxx c.