This historical glimpse under the powdered wigs of the court of Versailles gives a complete picture of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess betrothed to the future king of France at age 13. The setup was a political one, Antoinette’s mother (Empress Marie Theresa) wanting to install an Austrian presence in the French court. MA arrives at Versailles a young, frivolous girl, and leaves 20-odd years later a stronger, world-weary mother, witnessing the fall of the monarchy and concerned foremost for the safety of her family.
A few months back, a thought struck me that there’s no way MA could have said “Let them eat cake!” ~ it was too pert, one of those urban myths that stuck to her reputation. And in this book, Fraser points out that this canard had been attributed to the Spanish princess a century prior to MA’s arrival at Versailles, known in slightly different form, “If there was no bread, let the people eat the crust of the pÃ¢tÃ©.” The phrase was known to Rousseau in 1737 (MA was born in 1755). It was present in the memoirs of Comte de Provence, who remarked that “eating pÃ¢tÃ© en croÃ»te always reminded him of the saying of his ancestor, Queen Marie Therese.” Fraser points out that it was counter to MA’s charity-obsessed personality to say such a crude and misguided thing.
The drama of the book centers around a few events:
* MA and Louis XVI’s inability to conceive a child (finally remedied with a sickly Dauphin who dies, a healthy Marie Theresa, and another boy who theoretically becomes king when his father is executed)
* MA’s affair with Swedish Count Fersen
* The Diamond Necklace scandal, where someone impersonated MA and people believed she spent millions on a diamond necklace at a time the French treasury was teetering on collapse thanks to spending on the American Revolution. This scandal was responsible for steeling MA’s nerves and thrusting her into a stronger role. It’s also why she was frequently painted without a necklace, to make a pointed reference to her innocence.
* The revolution, the forced march from Versailles to Paris, the initial escape (failed) to Varennes where the family was recognized and detained, the eventual banishment to the Temple, then the Tower.
It is a remarkable journey, from the glittering excess of the Versailles courts to the vermin-infested quarters the Queen is confined to in the Tower, awaiting her husband’s death and then her own. The journey is also that of the French people- as they adore their new Dauphine and then their feelings morph into hatred as sordid and untrue tales circulate about MA.