Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France by Evelyne Lever is the second book I've ever read on Marie Antoinette, and I have to say I was not disappointed. After reading Antonia Fraser's biography of the ill-fated Queen I found myself hooked, desperate to find out more, desperate to visit the Palace at Versailles. And whilst this new found love is nowhere near as intense as my love for anything Charles I/II related, I have revelled in the fact that new doors have been opened to me and thus I have found new interests. I even sat down and watched Sophia Coppola's 2006 film "Marie Antoinette" starring Kirsten Dunst; and despite realising that it probably wasn't the most historically accurate of films, I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was just so beautiful, and the performances from the actors were just amazing.
Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI in Sophia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" played by Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman
First of all, I want to point out that Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette went into a lot of detail and was a lot thicker than Lever's work. This is not a bad thing, because at time Fraser's work may have become a little dry. That's not to say I didn't love Fraser's love and devour it, because I really did. But with Lever's book I found that I literally could not put it down - and normally I hate that phrase, but I just couldn't. Her writing was snappy, and it gave the information that was needed, yet described enough of Marie Antoinette's life to paint a beautiful portrait in your mind. The snappy writing style also meant that the chapters were not overly long, they got the point across with just enough information to keep you hungry for more. There were points where, even though I was reading a historical biography and academic work, I felt like I was reading a historical novel set in Versailles because Lever managed to pull me into the excesses of the French court with her writing. And it's not often that a book does that to me.
The majority of the book, of course, concentrated in the life of Marie Antoinette leading up to her downfall from her early life up until her family's imprisonment at the Temple in Paris. This of course is to be expected because after the death of her husband Louise XVI her own downfall was exceptionally quick. But through this huge part of the work, we are able to see how Marie Antoinette went from adored Dauphine of France to hated Queen. We also see how she went from a carefree young woman who loved to party to a woman on edge, who hid behind a false smile, and a woman who suffered almost silently from horrific health issues. As I read I often found myself shocked at how Marie Antoinette was treated in her later years as Queen of France - the horrible pamphlets that were published about her so called orgies and her loose living at court; the names she was called. It amazed me that she managed to stay so strong for so long.
When I watched Coppola's movie, and saw that Marie and Louis took so long to consummate their marriage I could barely believe it. 7 years!! But after doing some reading I realised that this was accurate, but the film didn't really explain why it took so long - the shyness of Louis, his psychology of thinking that he was a lesser man than the rest of the court, it all counts and again, I felt very sorry for this young man. Despite being presented with portraits showing a rather handsome young man, Louis in fact was a rather portly young man who waddled rather than walked so was it any wonder that in her younger days the beautiful young Dauphine didn't really make any move towards her husband? She tried of course, and to me it seemed halfheartedly, on the wishes of her mother the Empress Maria-Teresa and it ended up with visits for the Dauphin/King of France visiting his doctor!! Seven years later they finally consummated their marriage much to the joy of the Court and eventually had many children. What really got to me about their relationship was how close they became in their later years, and it seems to me that they really loved each other. Marie Antoinette insisted on staying with her husband throughout the dangers that beset them in their later years and during the beginning of the French Revolution, how he panicked when she took so long to reach their carriage upon escape from the Tuileries and how Louis always stayed loyal to his wife, despite the horrid rumours spreading amongst the populace about her, and about the paternity of her children. It also struck me how after Louis' execution, Marie grieved deeply, and wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life, and how she refused to walk past her husbands old room door in their prison after his execution.
As I mentioned in my review of Fraser's book, the Diamond Necklace Affair really struck me. It was a huge part of Marie Antoinette's life and I thought Lever did an excellent job telling the story of what happened, perhaps even better than Fraser did! Lever's writing style helped, because there seem to have been a hell of a lot of politics playing around in this part of Antoinette's life, but Lever did an exceptional job. She tells the reader what happened, and explains the reason behind it as well as the outcomes and the repercussions. As previously mentioned, Lever keeps her chapters short and sweet and the chapter on the Diamond Necklace Affair is no different and comprises of a grand total of 10 pages but Lever explains everything to the point without rambling on for pages and pages without getting into the nitty gritty details which for the most part will bore the reader. Well, unless they're me who devours all the nitty gritty political stuff. But still! Fraser went more into the nitty gritty, and whilst she did a good job it did get rather dry. Lever's chapter on the Affair, her wonderful narrative on the fraudulent notes from the Queen saying she would have the hugely expensive diamond necklance, just made me want to know more but didn't go into too much detail to let my mind wander. And I like that in an author.
Throughout the book as well I found myself struck with the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen - I don't want to go too much into this because it would end up being far too much conjecture for a book review but I do like to think that maybe, just maybe, she sought solace from the excesses of Versailles in his arm. Of course this can never be proven really, but they were close right until the end, and I found myself getting rather irritated when I found out that when Marie Antoinette was imprisoned he ended up in another relationship with Eleonore Sullivan. Yet at the end he mourned her hugely and it seems developed a distaste for Elenore, due to the fact that with her he didn't share the care and tenderness that he had with Marie Antoinette. I would love to know what really happened between the Queen and her Count, and Lever does a very good job at showing her readers what can be deduced from the surviving letters and his later actions. Alas I don't think that we will ever know. As I said previously, I like to think that they had a bit of a thing going on, especially considering as how the King often left them alone, especially at their last meeting. Did he know? That's a question I doubt we can ever answer.
Count Axel Von Fersen
As I read the closing chapters of Lever's book this morning before work I found myself tearing up. Just nine months after the execution of her husband, Marie Antoinette found herself being lead to her own death at the Guillotine. In her short chapter on the death of the Queen, I found myself exceptionally moved as I read about her trial at a Kangaroo Court that had already decided her fate, and how just 2 after the start of her trial she found herself being faced by her executioner in her cell at the Conciergerie as they tied her hands and hacked her hair off. She protested, saying they hadn't tied her husband's hands but was ignored. And despite the plots to free her, including the famous Carnation Plot, she was executed on 16th October 1793 at the Guillotine set up on the Place De La Revolution. Was she guilty of what she was charged of? High Treason? Incest? According to Lever, she would have been guilty of treason after releasing details of France's military plans yet the official verdict was unproven. The people just wanted her dead, the woman who they unjustly saw as the reason for their sorrows and hardship.
I have to say, both books I have read on Marie Antoinette have been seriously hard going as I reached their conclusion very likely due to how heavy their subject matter became. Yet at the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the story of the Austrian Archduchess and Queen of France. Her life was exceptional, so full of fun but ended in heartbreak and I thought that Lever did an exceptional job telling the story of Marie Antoinette - and she certainly showed the transition of the carefree, party loving Marie Antoinette to the Queen weighed down by politics and by the people's hatred, exceptionally well. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in the life of Marie Antoinette who doesn't know too much on the era, and even to those who know a lot about it! It is a wonderful work, and it tells the story of the ill fated Queen in a way to inspire pity in even those who believe that the verdict on Marie Antoinette was the true one. This is certainly a book I will return too, and it has helped to give me a taste for more. Thanks to this work, and that of Fraser, I will certainly be reading more about this fascinating woman.