French history has always fascinated me and it was for this reason that I picked up Juliet Grey’s Becoming Marie Antoinette. I had learned of France’s last queen when I studied the French Revolution. Before picking up the book, I knew she was the last queen married to Louis XVI, that she had married young, and that many attributed the phrase “let them eat cake” to her.
This novel is the first of a series of three. In this volume, we read of Marie Antoinette’s early life: her childhood in Austria; the changes she had to go through in order to be deemed an acceptable dauphine by the French; her wedding to Louis Auguste; the early experiences of her life in the French court at Versailles. Reading the pages describing the early events in her life, a sense is given of the lifestyle she led – and of the expectations so many had of her: her mother, the many people who tutored her for her future life, the French who who were expected to treat her as their future queen. Grey describes with authenticity what this girl’s life would have been like surrounded by these expectations and having to forgo her childhood.
The story begins when Marie Antoinette is 10 years old, continues through the time when she is groomed to be the dauphine, leads through her experience of marrying the future king of France, and takes us to the time at Versailles where she leads a life surrounded by sniping and bored aristocrats married to a husband who has difficulty consummating their marriage. The book describes her experience at the French court, the errors she makes, and the decisions she follows through. The last chapter ends with her and Louis XVI leaving Versailles for a period of mourning after the death of Loius XV, “le bien aimé”, who had lost favour with the French people.
Woven within the historical facts, one is able to get a sense of what these historical characters would have felt. Told from the viewpoint of Marie Antoinette, we get a sense of what her fears were, her boredoms, and her hopes. As we read the words written on the pages, we sense the subtle changes in her character, and how she changed from a naive young girl to one that became more adept at dealing with the back-stabbing culture of the French court at that time. The difficulties the young boy, Louis Auguste had are also hinted at, though not expanded upon as he is not the focus of this novel.
I enjoyed reading this novel and was drawn into the life of this fascinating woman. The historical facts have been written as a story with dialogue and descriptions you would find in any fiction novel. Written in the first person, we become one with Marie Antoinette as we read. We hear her thoughts, feel her emotions, and feel a little closer to this person that was born so long ago. If one expects a list of dry facts, stating arguments for and against the reasons for Marie Antoinette’s actions then this novel is not for you. If, however, you are looking for a book that describes the life of France’s last queen while giving you a personal insight into the reason for actions, then you will enjoy what Juliet Grey wrote. This is a treatment of a well-known personage given with a sense of dignity and honesty.
Do you enjoy reading novels based on French history?
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2013