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on 22 June 2001
I have read every single book published in England about Marie Antoinette, and I think Antonia Fraser has done the impossible. Every other book is written 'in the shadow of the guillotine'. Ms Fraser removes this. The young Arch-Duchess Antonia had no idea of her fate until the last few years of her life, and as a result of the way this book is written, we see the young Dauphine Marie Antoinette as a warmand loving princess, who longed to serve her adopted country and cared greatly about the poverty and suffering she saw around her. None of this impressed the frivolous French courtiers who were only too happy to criticize the Austrian Princess. Antonia Fraser also consigns to the wastepaper basket of history the comment, 'Let them eat cake'. Antoinette never said it: it has long been known that this remark was made by Marie Therese, the dim-witted wife of Louis XIV, and was resurrected by those who wished to weaken the monarchy still further. Antoinette's marital difficulties are not smoothed over, but again, Antonia Fraser removes the myth of the 'petit operation' which was said to have been performed before Louis XVI could make his queen a mother. Yes, Marie Antoinette was frivolous as a young woman, but aren't most young women of 14-20? As soon as she became a mother, as she had long wanted to be, her concerns changed and she became a mature and much more sensible woman. She supported her husband and family throughout the terrible traumas of the Revolution, and her courage and dignity in the face of the guillotine make her worthy to be the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. This is, without doubt,the best biography of Marie Antoinette I have read.
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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.
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on 19 March 2003
A biography of Marie Antoinette is a bit of an old chestnut, like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Jackie O, there can't be much more to say - or can there? In the case of this book, I would answer a resounding yes!
If you are looking for a sensational soap storyline, if you want to climb the hill of false indignation of reviling someone who apparently told the starving to eat cake, you'll be disappointed. Fraser debunks the myths that the gullible and small minded seem to find so satisfying. Very few people, if any, are all bad or all good and that holds true throughout the years and centuries.
We can never know fully what it is like to be in someone else's shoes, but I suspect that this gentle, engaging and ultimately enthralling book is about as good as it gets.
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on 10 April 2003
I mainly write this review in order to save the book from the bashing that 'Reader from France' (above) has given it.
Yes he/she quite rightly says that this book is not the place to look if you want to know why the last Queen of France lost her head - but that is not what this book is about or even purports to be about! So if that is what you are interested in finding out then perhaps take a look at Simon Schama's 'Citizens' - I wouldn't know because I got everything, and more, that I wanted to know from Antonia Fraser's book.
This is not a historical study into the reasons surrounding the French Revolution, nor is it a study into the reasons why Marie Anoinette lost her head. It is an extremely well researched and excellently written book on Marie Antoinette - her life, her passage through that life, and everywhere it took her. The detail is excellent and really makes you able to envisage it all as if you were there - having been to the Palace of Versailles it makes the reading even better because the feeling that you have been in the very rooms where all this took place is fantastic!
I think that Antonia Fraser has done an excellent job in piecing together a work which is quite evidently authoritative and helps put Marie Antoinette in a better light than history seems to have done. The criticism it seems to have attracted is totally unwarranted given that the criticism is directed at an angle which this book doesn't attempt to tackle.
A fantastic read - definitely recommended.
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on 22 July 2012
I had many issues with this book. I bought Antonia Fraser's book based on many of the positive reviews I read here and because I found the subject of Marie Antoinette fascinating, but I had little background in French history, in general, or the French Revolution, in particular. This caused quite a problem.

First, readers like me should be forewarned that if they do not have this historical background as I mentioned above, they will have a hard time following some of the background events. Antonia Fraser assumes the reader is educated in all this history, so she casually mentions people and events without giving any context or background information. Among other examples, I had to research the Diamond Necklace episode from other sources, because I could not tell from Fraser's book exactly what happened, in what context it was happening or what the real political problem was and why she was blamed for all this. Thankfully, I read Deborah Cadbury's book The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette's Favourite Son right after and gained a much clearer and concise overview of this event and the whole of the French Revolution, for that matter. Furthermore, her writing style is unclear and she often mentions the numerous family and courtiers surrounding Marie Antoinette without reminding us who they are and how they are relevant. Again, the author assumes we know all this.

Second, I too, felt that the author was quite apologetic for all of Marie Antoinette's weaknesses and problems. All are explained away as being the result of youth, bad education, a strict mother, few friends, ostracism from politics, etc...She is never forced to assume responsibility for herself or for the country of which she is Queen. In truth, the Court of Versailles was out of touch with the realities of French society and the severe economic problems that were plaguing it. The unpopularity and ultimate execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette must be seen in this context, but here Antonia Fraser fails us. Until the end, she is consistently excused for everything, some external injustice being committed against her. That is not to say that she deserved to have her head cut off, but it is important to have a more balanced perspective on just who she was and represented and what she had done as monarch of France.

Third, along the same lines as above, Fraser consistently presents Marie Antoinette as noble, graceful, and caring to all who encounter her. In fact, she often goes out of her way to present her like this, by explaining away many of the inconsistencies that might alter this picture. She does this by presupposing thoughts, feelings, and even actions on the part of many of the people surrounding Marie Antoinette and on the Queen herself.

All that being said, however, it is clear that Antonia Fraser has given us a much broader view of Marie Antoinette than history has provided us until now. We can see from where she came, her childhood and education, and her life at the court of Versailles. This context helps us to understand more fully why she behaved in such a manner and does give a more complete picture of Marie Antoinette in all her roles as wife, mother, and Queen. It seems that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette came to love and rely on each other, and their last years together are touching and poignant. I enjoyed this private look into her life, but due to the deficiencies above I can only give it three stars.
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on 27 July 2002
This is a superb book - it lays bare the soul of a woman who was much maligned yet remained imperious and brave to the end. The causes of the French Revolution are brought to life vividly and Antonia Fraser is always informative but never boring.
The life at the Court of Versailles is described with amazing detail along with the young Dauphine's wretched unhappy early marriage to a man who had little interest in her and didn't consumate his marriage for over seven years!
The abortive escape attempt to Varennes and the captivity endured by the Royal Family culminating in their tragic end makes gripping reading and the diabolical behaviour of the "sans culottes" and Robespierre's Reign of Terror gives cause for much thought. I would heartily recommend this book - it will shed an entirely new light on the tragic young queen.
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on 21 August 2003
This was the first book by Antonia Fraser I had read, and also the first book relating to the French revolution. Indeed, my knowledge of French history runs from Francis I to Henry IV, so it would be apt to describe myself as a stranger to the period of history Fraser was writing about. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that I found this to be one of the most accessible history books I have read in some time.
Marie Antoinette is usually castigated as a monster of history, yet Fraser does an admirable job in demolishing the myths surrounding her subject. From the notorious “let them eat cake” incident to her numerous alleged infidelities, the stories surrounding Antoinette are effectively demolished, and what we are left with is a surprisingly vulnerable woman.
The Antoinette of this book is constrained from many different sources, and in such a way as to negate the criticisms levelled at her. Her femininity was used as a political tool to form alliances through marriage, and it was from this point that her problems began to build up. The Hapsburgs who she was leaving behind expected her to exert a robust influence at court, yet at Versailles she found a system where woman were not allowed to have a voice, and where her primary function was to provide children for France. She was at the mercy of her husband in this, who was unable to consummate the marriage for a number of years, leaving her vulnerable to claims that the children she bore were not fathered by Louis VXI. The frustrations of the Hapsburgs demonstrate that when the castigation started, the picture of her as l'Autrichienne was exaggerated. She became a scapegoat for the failings of the ancien régime, when she had had little to do with the decision making process.
The book has been criticised by a number of other Amazon reviewers for not covering the cause and effect of the French Revolution enough. Yet it is to Fraser’s credit that she has represented events only from Antoinette’s point of view. The book is meant to centre upon Antoinette, not events happening around her, and the revolution with reference to Antoinette is well documented, and is a worthy attempt to present events from her point of view, instead of providing any moral or political justification for what happened..
Overall this is a superb biography. Fraser’s writing is clear and precise, and she applies insightful analysis to all the major events of Antoinette’s reign. She steers away from any sort of agenda, and does acknowledge her failings, even allowing for the indulgences of the court. The minutia of the court is well documented also, and anyone with a passing interest in royalty or history, would find that interest well served by this book.
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on 9 June 2008
This is the first of Antonia Fraser's historical biographies that I have read and on the strength of it I have already bought her biography on Henry the Eighth and his six wives and I intend to buy more. I absolutely adored the way this book was written, she sets the scene in such a realistic way that you can almost hear the baying of the angry mobs and smell the stench of the prison where Marie spends the last of her days.

Some historical biographies get too bogged down in historical data, quoting endless facts, dates and figures until you feel your brain can hold no more. This is the perfect biography in that it gives you the important information you need in order to understand the causes and effects of the revolution, yet the book never forgets the main subject which is Marie A herself. This book charts her course from a naïve, slightly uneducated child, pawn in her mother's imperial game into the most hated woman in all of France. This book succeeds in cutting through the gossip and anecdotes of the time, which haunt Marie A to this day, and gives her a human face. Yes she was flawed, but in this account we find some of the reasons behind her faults and ultimately come to see her as misguided rather than a bad person.

If this book has a flaw, it is that Antonia Fraser is maybe TOO sympathetic to Marie, in parts of the book you nearly feel like she is making excuses for all of Marie's bad behaviour rather than admitting when she was at fault. However this is the only flaw I could find in this book. Her descriptions of life at Versailles are truly stunning. I particularly enjoyed her description of the pomp and ceremony involved just in getting Marie dressed every morning! Overall, if you want a historical biography with flowing prose and true heart, then you will not find better than this one. I for one came away from the book with a new understanding of probably the most misunderstood woman in history.
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on 17 June 2016
This is a fascinating book - but no more than I would expect from Antonia Fraser. I visited Versailles earlier in the year and was anxious to know a bit more about the unfortunate Marie Antoinette; thanks to this book I now have a clear picture of her and it was a great read. Antonia Fraser certainly does her research and I like the fact that she does not impose her own feelings about the person she is writing about; you are left to form your own ideas. I would recommend this book to anyone.
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Like the previous reviewer I have read every book available to date about Marie Antoinette published in England and France. I really did have my doubts that anything new could be said about this ill fated Queen but had faith that Antonia Fraser could produce an exceptional biography regardless. What she produced is more than exceptional! It is much more in depth than any other book on this subject that I have read and certainly pays more attention to Marie Antoinette's early life and also her children than previously. The sheer size of the book is also a plus as is the huge amount of illustrations (some of which seem quite rare). I would recommend it to anyone and really feel (sadly) that now there really does not seem any need for any further evaluations -- at least not for a long long while!!...
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