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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.