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Thursday, 27 February 2014

I LOVE Marie Antoinette continued.......The Book Review

So exactly 3 years ago I wrote a blog about the film 'Marie Antoinette' - directed by Sofia Coppola, released in 2006. Click here to read it :)

I still to this day love the film as it has everything I am interested in such as phenomenal costume design and cinematography, it even won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Costume Design for lead designer Milena Canonero - If you don't know of her body of work look her up because I guarantee you that you will have seen and loved her costumes before!

At the time I hadn't read the book that the film was based on so decided to purchase it and take it away with me on holiday.... It has now been away with me multiple times and read cover to back over and over again so a review is well overdue!
My actual copy!

What I took from the book was that Marie was a loyal, dedicated woman who, as many women are today, was belittled and manipulated by media and whispers. Of course no book will ever be the actual truth of her reality but having a new window on to it was thoroughly interesting for me.  Marie Antoinette had lived her entire life playing roles that were molded for her and ultimately suffocated her promise.

To start off with this isn't the usual Marie Antoinette book where she is awaiting the guillotine yada yada.... but rather a romanticized story of a woman who could not foresee her extravagant life and inevitable terrible fate. It is first and foremost well researched and secondly portrays Marie Antoinette not as this 'let them eat cake' character we were taught in school but as a uniquely unlucky girl who was  a victim from birth to tragic death.

"I've seen everything, known everything, and forgotten everything"- Marie Antoinette 1789

The subtitle of the book is actually 'The Journey' which in all honesty to me seems a bit sickly. A journey to me dictates wanting to get to the end destination which I'm sure if she would have known her fate, Marie would not.

Anyway on to the book....The facts about Marie Antoinette's life are actually quite few and far between but this is where Antonia Fraser keen eye and life commentary come into play as she builds a life from these skeletal facts and makes it full of colour and composition.

To start off with Marie Antoinette was actually very generous and the book itself details her efforts to help the unfortunate to be more extensive than I had originally understood. Her donations and grants filtered through her entire reign and indeed her entire life in rule of France, dating back to childhood gifts for those in need. Generosity was not only part of her upbringing but part of her loving nature.

To me her life in this book could be put into three sections: her childhood, marriage/life and her children.

Joseph Ducreux, oil Painting from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - Portrait of Marie Antoinette 18th century

Marie-Antoinette, the youngest girl of a family of sixteen children, seems to have enjoyed a very happy childhood in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of the Hapsburg court. This explains her difficulties in adapting to the far more formal setting of Versailles as the book begins to delve into detail. Its this initial emotional pathway that grabs you into the book and her life. As a young girl her life is just a pawn in a game of international alliances of which at first she does not seem to grasp the importance. Fraser clearly defines how her inherited attributes and family dynamics contributed to this.

The Marriage/The Life:

Marie Antoinette at age 13 by Martin van Meytens, 1767.
When the book gets to the time of her wedding she is an overwhelmed, ill-educated teenage bride who was thrown into a larger than life world where her every move was watched by many in the shadows of the court. Even her bed sheets were checked regularly by a consortium of advisers! Can you imagine being so heavily watched and scrutinised for the entirety of your life?!?...... sounds a kind of warped hell to me!

What I found fascinating most was the early relationship between Marie and her Husband Louis XVI. I'm a big people watcher so to have a relationship described in such a way that portrays a deeper love that went beyond the role of husband and wife and into a support system was a unique one. Louis XVI is the only monarch in recent history that, as far as is known, did not cheat on his wife in those early years...... such a shame that this fact makes him unusual but what is more intriguing is the effect his monogamy had on his wife. Marie Antoinette suffered directly as a result of this devotion as she could not, as other Queens have done, life somewhat separately from her husbands gaze and enjoy her own passions. This lack of constant interest towards her husband on her part fueled vicious gossip which would in time be the back bone of a hate campaign targeting Marie Antoinette and eventually partly fuel a revolution against the monarchy.

Louis XVI taken from smithsonianmag
The only part of Fraser's description that I found confusing was how she described Louis physically. She describes Louis as a fat teenager, which, from what I have read since, does contradict many contemporary accounts of his appearance but being an author we will allow her some artistic license on that one shall we?

The book does document Marie's evolving understanding and growth within the royal court and also the changing view of her by the turbulent French people. The introduction of the scandals and rumours to the book changed my perception of previous chapters as they touched on what the revolution thought to have been her sexual proclivities prior to royal life.

Her children:
Marie and her Children - Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun
Marie Antoinette began her pregnancies, in 1778 after enjoying some time in the public spotlight. She would bear five children  but only three survived infancy. At this time of her life the flourishing underground pamphlet industry (aka the press) began to broadcast rumors that her children were not fathered by the king and created extremely elaborate stories about cheating and her 'close friendships.' 
The deaths of her children combined with increasing public pressure is heartrendingly described in the book and changes the flow of the writing from flourishing descriptions to short, sharp, painful instances.

During the later years of her short life Marie became heavily religious following the deaths
 of her children and the public hatred of her which I would have liked more detail on to be honest. How did she keep going? Did her newly strengthened faith offer any comfort? This is my own real criticism of the book as it touches upon the woman not the Queen that by this point Fraser's writing loose.
The book is ended by her own awful demise and beheading four torturous years after the appalling torture of her own young son who was made to falsely testify that he had been sexually abused by her..... vile!

What I will say that although the imagery Fraser created was extremely vivid there were parts to me that were crude and were sensationalized. The Queen had close friends whom she loved deeply and this has been manipulated by Fraser to enhance cheating scandals and to fill areas of Marie Antoinette's timeline that remain clouded by lack of historical detail.

My Thoughts:
I think readers will find different things in this book interesting. Some will focus on Marie Antoinette’s relationship with her husband, some on her fondness for her dear friends and charities and others on her tempestuous frivolity with money and clothing. It covers multiple aspects of one, ultimately extremely lonely woman.

The film in comparison had to appeal to a broad audience so was highly stylised but did have the basic vision of the world the book portrayed incorporated. I think both are valid portals of Marie Antoinette's life purpose built to satisfy either mediums audience.
Book vs Film
No one will ever really be able to explain the intricacies of one human beings life but Lady Antonia Fraser gives it a dedicated and respectful shot creating a book I truly love and would read again and again and again.......

It's a definite recommend from me :) Let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it!

Speak soon,


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