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Perhaps not quite the definitive biography
on 3 July 2004
I don't think it's particularly fair to label this book (as one Amazon reviewer has done) as "a royalist's view" of French history - although, interestingly, in terms of Marie-Antoinette's life, royalists have traditionally gotten it more right than others. I'd also completely reject the notion that this is "definitive" and/or "overly preferential to its subject."
This book's plus points are the wealth of detail Antonia Fraser presents about court etiquette at Versailles; the way in which minor characters, like the Queen's maid Rosalie Lamorliere, are brought to life, and its excellent epilogue which explores Marie-Antoinette's place in history and the tragedy behind this most public of royal lives.
However, at times Antonia Fraser seems to be almost tripping over herself to be PC and unbiased. We're so used to hearing detrimental things about Marie-Antoinette that any biographer who goes complete the grain will inevitably be accused of "whitewashing." But the truth is that the real Marie-Antoinette bears almost no resemblance to the Marie-Antoinette of popular imagination, so why did Antonia Fraser's "defence" of this queen seem convoluted and riddled with qualifiers? More accurate portraits of Marie-Antoinette's character and her role as queen have been presented in two modern studies - "The Lost King of France" by Deborah Cadbury and "The Fall of the French Monarchy" by Dr. Munro Price.
Antonia Fraser also fails to fully explain Marie-Antoinette's enormous political influence after 1789, something properly highlighted in Price's book. It's also true that the book at times fails to convey the full gritty reality of 18th-century life, which perhaps would have been useful in explaining why Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were determined to uphold such high moral standards (thus partially alienating them from certain circles of the aristocracy) after the debauched decadence of Louis XV's reign.
And as for Marie-Antoinette's "affair" with Count Fersen, Antonia Fraser's assertion that the two enjoyed a couvert affair is based more upon wishful thinking than a balanced assessment of the facts. Marie-Antoinette's position made adultery impossible, it could never have been kept a secret, and her up-bringing and personality both conspired to make it fundamentally unlikely that she would commit adultery with anyone. Their relationship was one of the many Marie-Antoinette found safety in - romantic, artificial, non-sexual gallantry.
This biography is an enjoyable one, and Antonia Fraser has done a good job in partially resurrecting Marie-Antoinette from the "rubbish bin of history" but there's still a long way to go before this unlucky queen's "definitive biography" is written.