A biography of a queen who never said, as legend has it, “Let them eat cake.”
Novelist and historian Fraser (Faith and Treason, 1996, etc.) manages to turn this spoiled, not-too-bright princess into a likable character. Pretty Marie was raised to further the Hapsburg family’s political ambitions, as defined by her dominating mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary. Fraser presents her subject’s childhood, full of dancing but short on books, as a smaller version of the proving grounds she would inhabit for the rest of her life. She fought her brothers and sisters for the time and attention of their mother; married to King Louis XVI, she vied to increase her power at Versailles; as a prisoner in the Tower, she fought for survival according to the rules of the Revolutionary Tribunal. At each of these challenges, she failed. For years, Marie’s position at court was undermined by the king’s refusal to have sex (or at least proper sex) with her. When she finally fulfilled her function and bore an heir, 11 years after marriage, France was already in the financial crisis that would lead to the convening of the Estates-General and, later, the Revolution. If she had been a more successful plotter, Antoinette may have saved her life and the lives of her children. But skeletons from past court intrigues—most involved the Queen’s enemies taking advantage of her—as well as inaction on the part of her brother, Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, led her to the guillotine. For a brief few years, Antoinette did have a heyday, though. After the birth of her son, she made a splash by abandoning the elaborate dresses and makeup that marked Versailles, a bold move for the leading figure of world fashion in the late-18th century. While Antoinette never made the oft-repeated line to peasants seeking bread, she was a spendthrift, a trait that helped do her in when the revolutionary lawyers made their case against her.
Antoinette’s story isn’t really a tragedy—but Fraser somehow makes it seem like one.