France’s beleaguered queen, Marie Antoinette, wrongly accused of uttering the infamous "Let them eat cake," was the subject of ridicule and curiosity even before her death. She has since been the object of debate and speculation and the fascination so often accorded tragic figures in history. Married in mere girlhood, this essentially lighthearted, privileged, but otherwise unremarkable child was thrust into an unparalleled time and place, and was commanded by circumstance to play a significant role in history. Antonia Fraser’s lavish and engaging portrait of Marie Antoinette, one of the most recognizable women in European history, excites compassion and regard for all aspects of her subject, immersing the reader not only in the coming-of-age of a graceful woman, but also in the unraveling of an era.
Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas — eager to be a good wife and strong queen — she warmly embraces her adopted nation and its citizens. She shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in so doing is unable to give what she and the people of France desire most: a child and an heir to the throne. Deeply disappointed and isolated in her own intimate circle, and apart from the social life of the court, she allows herself to remain ignorant of the country's growing economic and political crises, even as poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge. The young queen, once beloved by the common folk, becomes a target of scorn, cruelty, and hatred as she, the court's nobles, and the rest of the royal family are caught up in the nightmarish violence of a murderous time called "the Terror." Naslund makes a bygone time of tumultuous change as real to us as the one we are living in now.Both of these novels were donated to the library here at the Crown Center where I sort and shelve books as a volunteer. Both were written by excellent writers, though I haven't (yet?) read either book. But there's only room for a limited number of books and we have to make hard decisions about which ones people are likely to choose to read. Knowing books isn't enough; we also have to know our readers, who all live at the Crown Center for Senior Living. Keep one? Both? Neither? Abundance by Naslund went on the shelf because it's less than a decade old, but the other was deemed too old and didn't.
I read and reviewed The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson (2005), which I considered excellent. Maybe someone will donate it to our little library some day.