In the past, Antonia Fraser's bestselling histories and biographies have focused on people and events in her native England, from Mary Queen of Scots
to Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
. Now she crosses the Channel to limn the life of France's unhappiest queen, bringing along her gift for fluent storytelling, vivid characterization, and evocative historical background. Marie Antoinette (1755-93) emerges in Fraser's sympathetic portrait as a goodhearted girl woefully undereducated and poorly prepared for the dynastic political intrigues into which she was thrust at age 14, when her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, married her off to the future Louis XVI to further Austria's interests in France. Far from being the licentious monster later depicted by the radicals who sent her to the guillotine at the height of the French Revolution, young Marie Antoinette was quite prudish, as well as thoroughly humiliated by her husband's widely known failure to have complete intercourse with her for seven long years (the gory details were reported to any number of concerned royal parties, including her mother and brother). She compensated by spending lavishly on clothes and palaces, but Fraser points out that this hardly made her unique among 18th-century royalty, and in any case the causes of the Revolution went far beyond one woman's frivolities. The moving final chapters show Marie Antoinette gaining in dignity and courage as the Revolution stripped her of everything, subjected her to horrific brutalities (a mob paraded the head of her closest female friend on a pike below her window), and eventually took her life. Fraser makes no attempt to hide the queen's shortcomings, in particular her poor political skills, but focuses on her personal warmth and noble bearing during her final ordeal. It's another fine piece of popular historical biography to add to Fraser's already impressive bibliography. --Wendy Smith
, Antonia Fraser's first book in five years, heralds the welcome return of her wonderfully lucid, engaging style as she disentangles myth from fact regarding the life of the still controversial, and misunderstood, wife of Louis XVI of France. It is also perhaps her most assured work to date. The daughter of Empress Maria Teresa of Austria, the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, or l'Autrichienne
, was sent to France to marry the Dauphin in 1770 in an act of political union between the two countries. Despite her husband's preference for the hunting field over the bedroom, and a somewhat inexpressive personality--his final terse diary entry was to be, appropriately, "Rien"--a decade of French courtly exuberance entailed. Her disappointment in marriage gave way to an enjoyment of her position, especially on turning 30, yet an increasing number of libelles
and scandalous rumours about the new Queen and her sexual proclivities grew from Versailles' whispers to the shouts of what was to be the revolution of 1789. This was followed by her own awful demise and beheading four wretched years later, after the appalling torture of her own young son falsely testifying that he had been sexually abused by her.
Those are the skeletal facts of her life, but Fraser fleshes out the story with her customary composed authority. Her stated ambition is twofold. The book's subtitle, "The Journey", refers to Marie Antoinette's political significance in a union over which she had no control, but also her own personal story, from the ill-educated, overwhelmed teenage bride to the despised monarch who bore the brunt of all the ills of the ancien régime. Fraser, arch debunker, necessarily removes the apocryphal--Mozart the child prodigy saying that he would marry her, the infamous "let them eat cake" comment that preceded her by several hundred years, dressing as a milkmaid at her model village in the grounds of Versailles--to reveal a woman whose misfortunes, she concludes, outweighed her failures. Like the Jemima Shore detective novels she also pens, Fraser displays an unerring ability to ask the right questions. Most of all, though, she writes with an understated, unadorned clarity that imparts her learning with an ease to be both envied and savoured. In 1789, Marie Antoinette famously said to a deputation from the Commune of Paris, "I've seen everything, known everything, and forgotten everything". There could be no wiser, compassionate and judicious reclaimer of her besmirched reputation than Antonia Fraser.--David Vincent