A new author for me Juliet Grey and her book Becoming Marie Antoinette A Novel. Read by the author, I thought that there would be less of the interpretation in the reading than some readers inflict, however if anything I think it was more even more so. That being said I suppose it can be said with near certainty that at least the inflections that are read into the words in this particular version are meant by the writer.
The story is very much the story of becoming, we hear of childhood, surrounded by chickenpox and death, of marriage promises aged 10 while elder sisters still are yet to be betrothed, of suitable ways to keep girls curls tidy and presentable without the hair itself being torn out, for more than 1/3rd of her face was taken up with forehead and this look would not be acceptable in France! This was not the only fault that was noted to be in urgent need of correction before Marie could be known as one of the most beautiful women in France and history. You may, like me, squirm when it taes a whole day with only a little rum occassionally rubbed on her gums to fix her teeth. Marie is moulded and tutored, nothing is left un-tinkered with, her dress and shoes, her dancing and walking, her talking and accent, the way she sat and ate, her mastery of language, arts and music, how to get into a carriage and knowing just the right way to slip sideways through a doorway too small for the width of her dress and of course mastering beyond compare the ‘Versailles glide’. Eventually Marie makes the journey to France and discovers her new life and new world as a 14-year-old girl, the new bride of Louis-Auguste, Dauphin of France. However it is quite a different life and world from the one presented to her during her extensive preparation. She still has much to learn of politics, of France, of whom to trust, of love and of womanhood. For four years as the Dauphine she developes becoming a young woman, finally winning the love and respect of her husband (although still a virgin), when on the death of Louis XV she becomes Marie Antoinette the Queen of France and Navarre. The one comment I would have is that the title is slightly misleading, I would say that when this book ends she might indeed have become Queen but she is still only on the first stage of becoming the woman who history has longed portrayed her as. She is warm and fun-loving; someone who longed to serve her adopted country, to be and seen as French; cared more than any other member of court about the poverty and suffering the of the French people; and who was a devoted, faithful and deeply understanding wife to her husband despite his reticent to share her bed.
The story does continue in a second Novel Days of Splendour, Days of Sorrow, which doesn’t appear to be published yet, or indeed in audio format despite a teaser being read at the end of the recording I was listening to.
Having read the novel I moved on to Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette to unravel the fact and fiction. Fraser is another author I enjoy Warrior Queens is a book to get the blood pumping and to make you sit and wonder why anyone ever thought; never mind getting as far as to actually voice; that womanhood and weakness go hand in hand, but it is Marie Antoinette not Warrior QueensI am supposed to be telling you of. This book starts before ‘the novel’ beginning on All Souls Day 1755 with Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia, Queen consort of Germany, Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress (don’t think I’ve missed out any of her titles) in labour but continuing to work as her people are her children and this is her 15th child. Finally as one courtier recorded ‘Her majesty has been happily delivered of a small but completely healthy archduchess.’ She was back at her court papers the following day with Marie packed off to the wet-nurse, the beginning of a complicated relationship between mother and daughter.
It would appear that ‘The Novel’ was indeed a story telling of the facts which commends it, but such a short part of Marie Antoinette’s story. In fact if Grey gives the same biography/novel ratio to the whole of her tale she will be writing novels of her for many years to come. This book is informative and one which I enjoyed not knowing much past the she didn’t say ‘let them eat cake’ and she was guillotined before I listened. It is a full and frank biography and while it of course touches on the traumas of France and indeed wider Europe and the world of the time, it is chiefly about the woman. In fact I would go as far as to say if you weren’t to know how her story ended you might be somewhat surprised and cry ‘injustice’ as she heads towards Madame Guillotine.