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Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life by Sofka Zinovieff

One of Sofka Zinovieff's ancestors was wheeled in to her trial at the hands of a revolutionary tribunal. She told them about her court positions and the contributions that she'd made to public life - orphanages, libraries, dowries, and other charitable works. Then she said: "And now let me tell you who you are. You are murderers and assassins, cut-throats and rebels, tyrants, robbers, scoundrels..."
Her cause of death was supposed to be a heart attack, but the story goes that she was shot immediately.

Sofka Dolgorouky was not that ancestor, but she was just as interesting. This grandmother of the authors was hated by many of Zinovieff's relations because of her scandalous life and her taking to Communism. This is perfectly understandable because of the suffering and tyranny the Russian aristocracy endured at the hands of the Communists, of course.

It is with some trepidation that Zinovieff sets out to uncover her story, especially when her uncle tells her that promiscuity is in the blood because of Catherine the Great! But she unfolds the fascinating truth about her grandmother in a very enjoyable book - although it is sometimes harrowing.

I can't say much more without telling the story, but I can say that I totally disagree with Dolgorouky's politics but Zinovieff does make her grandmother's point of view understandable.

Anyone with a liking for Russian history or biography will enjoy this book.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Some Other Books

Two books that I've also read lately are The Seven Ages of Paris by Alastair Horne and Turner's Paintbox by Lloyd Jones.

The Seven Ages of Paris was much more interesting than most history books and covers much Parisian culture as well as successive kings and queens and governments. Horne tends to be rather idiosyncratic and devoted many pages to eras that he liked while practically dismissing the French Revolution. I found this a bit odd but I'd like to read some of his other books.

Turner's Paintbox was a luminous book - a sensitive and moving love story. It charts the progress of a love affair and combines this with the story of the great painter, Turner. I actually cried at the end of this book - but I'm not going to say whether this was because the ending was sad or happy.

Like most Australians I am attracted to Turner's paintings (even after a very boring tour at the Tate) and this book made me more interested in his art and his life.

A Strong-Minded Empress: Imperial Highness by Evelyn Anthony

Evelyn Anthony's writing runs rings around most of the modern historical writers such as Philippa Gregory. She doesn't resort to tricks like including steamy scenes in the first few pages or using grating modern language. The quality of her writing speaks for itself.

This is about the young Catherine the Great of Russia. Dragged from her remote German principality almost in the middle of the night, Catherine has a clear idea of her destiny almost from the beginning. This novel portrays her as an extremely strong-minded girl who faces her many problems - a mad husband, a drunken Empress, and a dominating mother - with dignity and determination.

The character of Peter, Catherine's husband, would have been difficult to write but Anthony never shows it as laughable. The strange Empress, Elizabeth, is also written reasonably sympathetically.

Catherine's character shines in this book and her progress towards her final destiny becomes quite exciting as she fights her husband and the mercurial Empress, who imprisons her for seven years, to obtain her ultimate goal.

It is also a romantic novel which relates the beauty and suffering of a teenage girl's first love.

This book made me much more interested in reading about Catherine the Great.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Message for Malcolm

Hold on Malcolm. Your time will come! (You're the best candidate for leadership even though I don't agree with you about a republic.) See my new blog for more. (It will be up soon.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Ten Books I'd Need On A Desert Island

I saw this meme somewhere and really liked it. They're not all classics and some of them are out of print, I'm afraid, but these are the books that I couldn't live without on my desert island and my reasons:

1. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): I'd need to fantasize about Mr.Darcy and the usually perceptive Elizabeth's company!

2. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell): I'd need all of Scarlett's gumption and more to survive on and escape from being stranded on the island.

3. Crime and Punishment(Dostoevsky): This story of redemption is ultimately comforting, and I'd study the knife-like precision of the writing.

4. Anne of the Island (L.M. Montgomery): Anne's bright spirits would cheer me up, not to mention beloved Gilbert, and this is my favourite 'Anne' book.

5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith): This rags-to-riches story is also one of my favourites.

6. How Sleep the Brave (Catherine Gavin): This is a story of heroism and courage during the French Resistance.

7. The Free Frenchman (Piers Paul Read): Another story of courage and integrity during the trauma of the war.

8. War in Val d'Orcia (The Diaries of Iris Origo): These are the diaries of an Italian aristocrat who at first favoured Mussolini but soon changed her mind, and found herself caught directly in the trauma of the battle.

9. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): I would need all of Jane's good sense.

10.A Candle for St.Jude (Rumer Godden): My favourite Godden book. This combines the beauty of ballet with Catholic spirituality.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Always Flowers: The Colour of Love by Preethi Nair



This is a ‘feel-good’ story about finding one’s identity, one’s place in the world and true love. Charming and memorable and full of gentle lessons about life, it struck me as quite profound at times.

When the book begins the heroine, Nina, is in a bad way. Traumatized by the death of her best friend and stuck in a job that she hates in order to please her ambitious Indian parents, she also has to face the possibility of an arranged marriage. Nina is a lawyer who really wants to be a painter. Visiting a Guru who abuses her and losing her job after a big fight makes things much worse.

She agrees to go out with the future husband her parents have found and pretends that she has kept her job. An endearing character, it is easy to feel sorry for Nina!

But things begin to turn around when she goes to her favourite artist, Matisse’s exhibition at the Tate, and she meets a fellow artist, a friendly and genuine Australian girl, Gina. Gina’s friendship with Nina doesn’t begin well even after Gina suddenly tells Nina her favourite quote: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them,” by Matisse.

But they soon find that they have many things in common and Gina lends Nina her studio so that she can paint.

Nina gets into even more of a mess when she secretly paints, doesn’t tell her parents or fiancĂ© about the loss of her job, and pretends that she is an agent for Foruki, her pseudonym! When she becomes attracted to a new man, Michael, she has even more choices to make!

This is largely an autobiographical novel which probably makes it even better. Preethi Nair had such a hard time selling her first book, Gypsy Marsala, to publishers that after nine rejections, she decided to self-publish. She decided to have an alias as well and this helped because she could pretend that her pseudonym was the woman that she wanted to be.

I enjoyed this book and loved the quotation so I will definitely be reading more of Preethi Nair’s novels! You can hear her story here: Preethi Nair

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book of the Year (so far!): The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This is a very clever and moving literary mystery which those who enjoy books such as Jane Eyre will love. I admit to thinking that it was contrived to appeal to a certain type of reader at first but the writing was so good and I became so involved in the mystery that I continued reading and I was glad that I did!

The heroine, Margaret Lea, a solitary biographer haunted by the loss of her twin sister, receives a letter from a famous writer, Vida Winter, asking her to write her biography. Margaret agrees on condition that Ms Winter, who has continually made up stories about her past, finally tells the truth.

When she arrives at Ms Winter's, Margaret becomes involved in the mystery of her past. The tale includes haunted houses, feral twins, mad adults and other odd characters. It is almost, but not quite, too over the top, because Setterfield keeps a tight control over it.

In the great tradition of all gothic mysteries, our heroine has to solve it. In doing so she also comes to terms with her own sadness and begins to find her own place in the world.

This is a memorable novel which moved me to tears and had much wisdom in it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Immortal Chanel: Coco The Life and Times of Gabrielle Chanel by Frances Kennett

It was Christmas Eve in Paris. The French novelist, Michael Deon, was dressing to go to dinner with his girlfriend one night when the famous dress-designer, Chanel, telephoned him and invited him to dine at the Hotel Ritz. The dining room was full so Chanel and Deon had supper in her room. Deon despaired of being able to join his girlfriend and stayed until past midnight when he returned alone to his hotel 'not in the least put out'. This was a few nights before Chanel died. Until her death she still retained great enchantment and charm.

Deon '..believes that none of her biographers have done justice to her extraordinary magnetism, her magical fairy-tale like quality, that literally held people captive.' Ms Kennett may be an exception. This is a very charming book which relates Chanel's story in a sympathetic, interesting and unusually philosophical way which suits the great designer's life. The lovely paintings and illustrations by Natacha Ledwidge add to the book's magic.

Chanel had a difficult childhood. Her mother died young and her father deserted his family, putting Chanel into an orphanage. She made friends with a cousin, Adeline, and finally her Aunt Julia took pity on the young girls, teaching them to sew and do housework.

She started off her career by attempting to sing in music halls and nightclubs but wasn't much good at singing. Very good-looking, she soon attracted a 'protector', an army officer, Etienne Balsan, but she denied having a sexual relationship with him. When Balsan retired and became a country gentleman, Chanel started to prefer one of his friends, a handsome Englishman, Boy Capel. He set her up in a hat shop which was the start of her long career.

Chanel's boyfriends are almost too many to mention by name - Boy Capel, the Russian Grand Duke Dmitri, the tortured poet, Paul Reverdy, the Duke of Westminster...the list goes on. She certainly had an interesting love-life! But it all ended in tragedy partly because her heart was really in her career and the type of men she was attracted to found that intimidating in those days. Some of them were also married and it was a bad idea for Chanel to try to get them to leave their wives.

Infamously one of her lovers was a German general and Chanel favoured the Nazis during the war. Even though she was a wonderful designer she was also considered a traitor.

Chanel's career was certainly illustrious. We owe her the little black dress; the distinctive Chanel suit; the invention of the modern swimsuit; the divine Chanel No. 5 and many more innovations.

She worked almost until her death and grew increasingly bad-tempered and alone, avoided by her old friends. Kennett writes that she never solved the problem that many women have to face - how to be happy and solitary.

This is well-worth reading for those interested in fashion and the history of costume design, or the life of a famous and interesting person.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ballerina's Ballerina: Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman

Meridith Daneman writes like the ballerina she was - radiantly and luminously but thoroughly and in a well-disciplined way. Her wonderful book about this greatest of all English ballerinas never fails to fascinate.

Keith Money described Margot Fonteyn's dancing as 'the still heart at the centre of the universe.'* She certainly had all the attributes of a prima ballerina: grace, simplicity, beauty and fantastic dedication to her art. Like most great artists Fonteyn didn't have an easy life. In fact, hers was more difficult than most. Daneman describes a journey from one opposite to another. Fonteyn left school at fourteen yet became Vice-Chancellor of Durham University in later life. She enjoyed a bohemian life with many love affairs when she was young and single yet she became such a devoted wife that she combined ballet with caring for her husband who was in a wheelchair and retired with him to a remote and primitive farm in Panama. The one thing that was constant in her life (at least until she met her husband, Tito Arias) was the ballet.

Born Peggy Hookham, the daughter of a half-English and half-Brazilian mother and an English father, Peggy showed early promise at ballet which her mother encouraged. Inspired by a performance in Les Sylphides by Alicia Markova, Peggy decided to devote herself to ballet very young. When Peggy and her mother left Shanhai to which her father had been transferred in order to go back to England, Peggy told her headmistress at her Catholic school that she had decided to abandon academic education completely. Miss Fleet told her that: "You will regret this all your life because you will find yourself an ignoramus among other people." Aged fourteen, Peggy dismissed this with a shrug and embarked on her new career as Margot Fonteyn.

The astute and formidable Irish Ninette de Valois spotted 'the little Chinese girl' and Fonteyn became a favourite in the early days of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet.) She was not liked for a few years, however, because the company thought her aloof and snobbish, so she had a hard time at the beginning. It was also difficult for the young company to gain respectability. In those days ballerinas were on a par with actresses and men used to visit the theatres in France after the ballet expecting the dancers to be agreeable to going home with them. The ballet in France was gaining in popularity and respectablity but it was not as popular in England.

In 1940 the young company went on tour to Europe, beginning in Holland. The first town they went to was surprisingly full of German sympathesizers. Children jeered at them and adults spat at them. When the bombing started the company had to be rescued by an overcrowded cargo boat. This is an exciting part of the book and Meredith Daneman describes it vividly.

She describes the intrigues and lost careers which beset the company - the feuds between Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton, the ballerinas who tried to compete with Margot Fonteyn and failed such as Moira Shearer (who did have a glittering movie career) and the treatment of the conductor, Constant Lambert, who became an alcoholic.

Although Margot Fonteyn seemed very virginal and innocent when she danced, she apparently had many lovers. Her affair with the married and much older conductor, ConstantLambert, left an upset and alcoholic wife in its wake, but Fonteyn did try to resist his obsession with her for a long time. This is where the book does get a bit crude. We don't really need to know too many details of what went on in the bedroom or if Margot was good in bed. Daneman also states that Fonteyn had a few abortions and I'm not sure whether we need to know that either.

She met Tito Arias on a tour to Cambridge and never forgot the good-looking young Panamian. Years later she was surprised when he wined and dined her, bought her fur coats and sent her hundreds of roses in spite of his having a wife and three children. Again she tried to resist but they eventually got married. She was warned about the unfaithfulness of Latin men and ignored it, but Tito, who became the Panamian Ambassador to Britain, constantly philandered. Margot was on the point of divorcing him when he was shot and injured.

On the point of retirement, she had to keep dancing to pay the bills. Lucily her wonderful partnership with Nuryev gave her dancing a new lease of life at the age of forty-two. It prolonged her career by eighteen years. According to this book Fonteyn fell in love with him but the mystery of whether these wonderful dancers ever went to bed together remains unresolved. Daneman thinks that they probably did:
"Are we then honestly to believe that the love between these two extravagantly beautiful people whose shared idiom was tge language of bodies did not at some point come to carnal expression..."

Whether they did or not, even the story of their partnership in ballet is wonderfully romantic. The New York Times called them 'a confluence of dancers where the chemistry, the times and most of all, the artistry, all were right. To see Fonteyn was one thing. To see Nuryev was another thing. But to see Fonteyn and Nuryev together, on the same stage, with their particular love and assurance, was almost indescribably special.'

Daneman doesn't flinch from the unlikeable elements of Fonteyn's character in this book. She and Tito were friendly with Imelda Marcos and Noriega and Fonteyn sometimes helped Tito in his mad schemes to obtain power in Panama. Also Fonteyn tended to hang on to the limelight at the expense of other ballerinas, such as Lynn Seymour.

But the woman who could dance (and dance well) until the age of sixty, care for her parilysed husband, inspire a difficult and temperamental young Nuryev, and look glamorous in Christian Dior after thirty-hour flights ultimately comes out glowing.
As Daneman writes: "True art, in the end, is to do with character. Beyond the beauty or cleverness or power of what we see or read or hear, what reaches us is the essence of a person. And we could not take our eyes off Margot Fonteyn. So the mystery to be unravelled is a moral one: it is the qualities of heart that made her so exceptional a being that must be the subject of this book." Daneman does that splendidly.

*I wrote this quotation from memory because I looked for it twice in the book and couldn't find it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Get Paid to Blog

In my other life I write freelance articles so getting paid to blog always interests me. One way to do this is to register with
Blogsvertise. Advertisers join Blogsvertise in order to generate publicity and exposure through blogs. Bloggers with the company mention these products and get paid through Paypal.

The first step is to register your blog with
Blogsvertise. If your blog is approved topics are assigned to you. You then write about the website in your blog - you don't have to compliment it. You can write about it in any way that you please but it is a requirement to provide at least three links to the website in your blog post.

If you don't have a blog but you'd like to join
Blogsvertise, the way to do this is to set up a blog using one of the free blogging services recommended by blogsvertise and make some entries. After this you can register with the company.

Advertisers also join the company by registering. They make requests for mentions in blogs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

I found the writing in this biography fairly dull and academic in spite of the excellent reviews it received. It's only worth reading if you are extremely interested in Chekhov or in Russian history. This book does does fulfill the author's intentions, i.e. it shows how landscapes affected Chekhov's writing and it provides an excellent background to his plays and short stories. However, I almost gave it up a couple of times. The eloquent and luminous extracts from Chekhov's own writing were, of course, wonderful but it would be unfair to compare those with an academic biography.

Chekhov led a very interesting life even though he sadly contracted TB at the young age of 24. He came from a relatively wealthy merchant family in the southern town of Taganrog, but the family fell on hard times when he was quite young. This didn't deter the clever young man from winning a scholarship to study medicine in Moscow and writing in his spare time to help finance his studies and his family. Later, Chekhov became a successful writer when he was fairly young and had to support the family with his writing and his medicine. Success wasn't easy, however. The first time The Seagull was staged, it was a flop and the actors were laughed off the stage. A kind-hearted man, he helped the peasants with his medical practice, and travelled to Siberia where he wrote a book about the cruel plight of the exiled prisoners.

The main flaw in Chekhov's character was his misogynism. He womanised, visited brothels, and led quite a few women on. Late in life, however, he fell in love with a beautiful actress. This romance is probably the most enjoyable and tenderly written part of this book.

Chekhov was often advised to travel south for the sake of his health and this biography describes his travels to the Mediterranean and his residence in Yalta. Even though he had TB he missed the snow, the troikas and the sleighs of winter in Moscow and his literary life there.

I am presently reading Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman which is my idea of what a biography should be and I'll write more about that when I've finished.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

One of the Best Historical Novels: Katherine by Anya Seton

In spite of my fiance calling them 'hysterical novels' I love to read good historical novels. I read that Alison Weir, the historian, was actually inspired by this one when she was young which justified my liking for them!

Anya Seton used to be one of my favourite authors and I read all of her books a long time ago. Katherine is one of her best and I still enjoyed it very much when I re-read it recently. Set in medieval times, it is a moving love story based on the true story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. It is thoroughly researched and well-written and although I am not a medieval history expert I couldn't find any glaring historical mistakes. The descriptions of the settings and clothes are incredibly detailed and Anya Seton's writing really does take the reader into the world of medieval England. The fact that Chaucer is one of the main characters makes the book more interesting. There are also no jarring modern expressions. (I read a historical novel once in which one character told another to 'get a grip!' This was set in the eighteenth century!)

There are a few flaws in this book for modern readers. The writing is fairly old-fashioned and the main characters, although well-drawn, are just a little bit too beautiful to be true! Feminists may also take issue with Katherine becoming John of Gaunt's mistress and passively waiting around for him to show up in much of the book!
This book created a scandal when it was written because it was thought to be promoting adultery. Katherine is a very likeable character, however, and she does have quite a lot of determination and inner strength which eventually helps her.

If you like historical novels set in England then this is well-worth reading.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Excellent Wife: Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy

NB: I haven't been giving this blog much attention recently and must apologise. My mother's ill so it's difficult at the moment.

SONYA: THE LIFE OF COUNTESS TOLSTOY BY ANNE EDWARDS

This is a warm and sympathetic biography of Tolstoy's wife and it is also wonderfully interesting. Those who love Russian history will especially enjoy it.
It is certainly an indictment of Tolstoy himself, however. I doubt that I would have read the great classics: War and Peace and Anna Karenina if I'd read this first!
He was an extremely unlikeable character, according to this book.

When the book begins Tolstoy is reasonably charming and Sonya falls in love with him when she is only 12. He courts her sister, Lisa, at first, but finds her cold and stiff, whereas the much younger Sonya is warm, emotional and passionate. Impressed by this beautiful young woman, Tolstoy changes his mind and proposes to Sonya. Needless to say, Lisa is pretty upset!

The marriage doesn't start off well because Tolstoy writes a confessional letter to Sonya detailing his visits to brothels and his affair with a gypsy servant on his estate with whom he has an illegitimate child. Sonya is very sheltered and becomes quite horrified by this letter, but she marries him anyway.

Sonya comes from a reasonably wealthy, cultured family and she is used to the best of everything. She is also used to a large and happy family with lots of visitors and living in the middle of the city (Moscow). When she marries Tolstoy she has to go to a sparsely furnished villa in the middle of the countryside, which is quite lonely. She copes very well, and works very hard at managing the finances and transcribing Tolstoy's great novels late at night. She helps him very much in his work. She also has to endure having lots of children with very little help from him.

Tolstoy has an underlying hatred of women, in fact. Sonya tries to breastfeed her babies because he doesn't believe in wet-nurses, and suffers terrible pain. He is quite unsympathetic.

The main trouble occurs, however, when Tolstoy develops his weird philosophy which is like a cult, and he attracts lots of followers. He doesn't believe in sex even within marriage, becomes a vegetarian, and is generally quite crazy. Poor Sonya understandably starts to suffer from depression herself.

This is a harrowing book to read but it is well-written and captures the atmosphere of Russia in the nineteenth century with its wonderful descriptions. It is written like a novel which I found difficult to get used to, at first, but I grew to like it.
I bought it second-hand so it may be hard to find now, but it is worth buying!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Anastasia by Colin Falconer

When American journalist, Michael Sheridan, rescues a beautiful White Russian woman from a sleazy Shanghai nightclub, he cannot help falling in love with her. She has been hardened by her bad experiences, however, and returns his interest with coldness. Shocked to discover that she bears a resemblance to the Russian duchess, Anastasia Romanov, and unable to pay his debts, he lets her go to Germany with a Russian who says that he wants to help her. This is his big mistake.

This begins a chase through Berlin, London and Shanghai, as Michael and Anastasia attempt to avoid their underlying love for each other. Anastasia has to choose between her soul and her ambition and desire to discover whether she really is Anastasia Romanov.

This is an enjoyable and moving love story with more than enough realism to keep it from becoming sentimental. The beginning of the book which describes the captivity of the last Tsar and his family, their gruesome murders, and the fictional Anastasia's escape, is very harrowing and quite gruesome. As indeed it was.

It's also cleverly written because the narrators are Michael and Anastasia, so the reader understands both sides of the story. This is unusual and it works.

Colin Falconer also writes more modern novels as Mark D'Arbanville. I like both his historicals and his modern novels.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Inside Marbled Halls by Anthony Masters

This is an excellent book for those who want to find out what working 'downstairs' in one of London's grand hotels was like in the early twentieth century.

Mary Schiffer lived a life of incredible poverty in Dublin. A child from a large family she had to endure a crowded, and fairly miserable existence with a drunken father who didn't hesitate to use force and a compliant mother who put up with this. Her sister died of the Spanish Flu when Mary was very young.

Although she loved her family, Mary hated The Liberties (the tenements where they lived), and decided to leave. When she somehow got the money she took the ferry to England in the middle of the First World War. Almost captured by a white slaver, a Salvation Army lady took Mary in hand and arranged a job for her at the splendid Hyde Park Hotel.

Here Mary worked in the still-room - a sort of butler's pantry where she had to prepare tea or coffee and toast for the celebrated guests. She had to work very long hours for a rather bad-tempered boss, but life was better than it had been in the Liberties.

During her career Mary became a confidante of Queen Mary, talked to the young Duke of Wales and met other Royals and celebrated people such as Churchill and Evelyn Waugh.

She looked after the 'retiring need's of Queen Mary, i.e. her commode, and used to speak to her about the war. Mary admired her ordinariness, and her charity work.

Mary also liked the young Prince of Wales very much. He would talk to her after balls and dances at the hotel and she felt that he had a genuine desire to help the poor. However, he became disillusioned when he realized that he would only be a figurehead. She also sympathized with Queen Mary when Edward married Mrs.Simpson, especially when he married her on his late father's birthday. That seemed pretty malicous to me! The book does give an excellent account of the difficulties raised by the love affair, however, and the author was sympathetic with the Price.

Mary became a 'character' at the hotel after working there for many years. She had a hand in everything and came to be heavily relied on. Although she wasn't ambitious she was feisty and even 'had words' with Churchill at one stage!

The book describes the splendour of the hotel's 'golden age' very well - the menus of French dishes, the balls, the debutantes, and the other former occasions. It also describes the hard lives of the staff and the great poverty of Mary's family, by contrast.

It is also quite an intimate biography because the author became a good friend of Mary during his interviews with her.

This was an excellent buy for 50p from a Greenwich market! (Some 'oldies' were quite upset that I'd got it!) If you are interested in this type of social history be sure to grab it if you see it in a second-hand bookshop.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Much Maligned Queen - Marie-Antoinette: The Journey



Marie-Antoinette is a charming, interesting and well-researched book by the 'Queen of Historians', Antonia Fraser. It shows how this admittedly rather frivolous, young girl, who was not very well-educated and not at all interested in politics, became a serious and religious woman forced to try and deal with forces that were too much for her. This is an excellent defence of this poor Queen, who is still regarded by many people as being almost solely responsible for the French Revolution. Marie-Antoinette was almost doomed right from the start because of her being Austrian - Austria and France were enemies when she married Louis XVI. At only fifteen she had to deal with an indecisive husband who didn't give her a child for ages; the constant nagging of her dominating mother who demanded that she advocate Austria's interests; the devious intrigues of the French court; and the criticism of the people who were demanding an heir. Kind-hearted and sweet, Marie-Antoinette tried to do her share of charity work and be good to the poor, but she sought compensation for her husband's seeming lack of interest in buying clothes, gambling, and her beautiful house at La Trianon. This did not look good and the people used her as a scapegoat for their problems, regarding her as responsible for the poor state of the economy. They even nicknamed her 'Miss Deficit'. This wasn't true at all as Antonia Fraser points out. It was really Louis's giving assistance to the American Revolution (which annoyed England) that was mostly detrimental to the economy, not the spending of the aristocrats.

Fraser tells of the horrors of the French Revolution in an unflinching manner. At one stage mobs rampaged through the streets and killed prisoners at random. The bloodthirstiness was incredible. Not content with a constitutional monarchy, which Marie-Antoinette really didn't want but was forced to agree to, the revolutionaries first executed the King and then put the Queen on trial. It was, of course, a show trial. The Queen handled the trial questions with great intelligence but it was too late. At four in the morning they made her appear before a tribunal who accused her of not only treason, but of dreadful acts with her own son. So shocked was Marie-Antoinette that she could not answer. When asked why she didn't answer, she appealed to the mothers in the room saying that this was completely against any mother's nature. The audience was sympathetic, but it was too late. The Queen was executed at noon that day.

Sofia Coppola's new film was based on this book. I enjoyed the movie but it was fairly shallow compared with the book - I didn't feel that it made it clear that the assistance to the American Revolution was responsible for France's poor economy and that Marie-Antoinette really did try to help the poor, even if it was in a limited way.