Marie Antoinette: The Journey

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Overview

An utterly riveting and intensely moving book by one of the world?s finest biographers.

Never before has the life of Marie Antoinette been told so intimately and with such authority. The eighteenth-century French queen whose excesses became legend, Marie Antoinette was blamed for instigating the French Revolution. In this lavishly illustrated biography, best-selling author ...
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Overview

An utterly riveting and intensely moving book by one of the world’s finest biographers.

Never before has the life of Marie Antoinette been told so intimately and with such authority. The eighteenth-century French queen whose excesses became legend, Marie Antoinette was blamed for instigating the French Revolution. In this lavishly illustrated biography, best-selling author Antonia Fraser portrays a woman whose journey from palace to guillotine was doomed by her innocence and the manipulations of the ancien régime.

Antonia Fraser takes us behind the scenes to tell the story of the fourteen-year-old Archduchess of Austria’s arrival at the French court of Versailles, betrothed to the future King Louis XVI. Hostage to her mother Empress Maria Theresa’s foreign policy, Marie Antoinette was immediately accused of political interference by the French, yet she was not interested in state affairs, preferring to play a gracious, philanthropic role, patronizing the arts, especially music.

Fraser weaves a richly detailed account of Marie Antoinette’s journey from an innocent, unsophisticated young girl into a magnificently courageous woman who, in the last days of the ancien régime, defied her enemies at her trial with consummate intelligence, arousing the admiration of even the most hostile revolutionaries.

Brilliantly written, Marie Antoinette is a work of impeccable scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of letters and other archival materials, Antonia Fraser successfully avoids the hagiography of some of the French queen’s admirers and the misogyny of many of her critics.

Brilliantly written, Marie Antoinette is a work of impeccable scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of family letters and other archival materials, Antonia Fraser successfully avoids the hagiography of some the French queen’s admirers and the misogyny of many of her critics. The result is an utterly riveting and intensely moving book by one of our finest biographers.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Was she a sexual predator, political meddler, wastrel, and traitor? Or was she a scapegoat for a corrupt and bankrupt nation, who went with superb dignity to the guillotine, the victim of a vindictive judicial murder? The tragic life of Marie Antoinette, rich in conflicting detail, remains a biographer's challenge, and Antonia Fraser's richly human yet evenhanded account is a reader's delight.

In 1770, Marie Antoinette, aged 14, wed the awkward 16-year-old who in 1774 became Louis XVI. The marriage was intended to strengthen the Austrian-French alliance and produce sons to continue it. Marie Antoinette was of little use in the first endeavor; she lacked political power. Louis was of only occasional help in the second; he suffered from phimosis, an inhibiting physical condition. While the pair wandered through their doomed lives, fury built up in bankrupt France, exploding in the ferocity of the Revolution.

Everybody criticized Marie, who was known both as l'Autrichienne (the Austrian woman) and l'autruche chienne (the ostrich bitch). She was regarded as extravagant ("Madame Deficit"), pro-Austrian, and childless for too long. But, as Fraser demonstrates, Versailles demanded extravagance, and in politics Marie Antoinette was more pawn than player, pushed by wily Austrian diplomats and blocked by shrewd French ministers.

Fraser draws upon a huge range of sources to present a dazzling cast. Mozart, Gluck, Jefferson, Paine, Franklin and numerous others cross her pages. Fersen, the queen's discreet, devoted Swedish lover, looms large. The author succeeds brilliantly in describing how the once-vibrant Marie and the decent, despised, and irresolute Louis transformed themselves as the Revolution took its murderous course. Love of family gave them courage; love of France gave them nobility.

The horrific fate of Marie Antoinette, physically abused by the canaille, viciously libeled by the blood-soaked false prophets of liberty who condemned her, reminds the reader of just how thin the veneer of civilization is -- and how often revolutionaries are worse than those they condemn. Excellent illustrations and an extensive bibliography add to Fraser's fine book. Enthusiasts hungry for more can try Evelyne Lever's "martyred queen" portrait (Marie Antoinette: A Biography) and Chantal Thomas's analysis (The Wicked Queen), both now available in translation. (Peter Skinner)

Peter Skinner lives in New York City.

Washington Post Book World
In the hands of a vivid writer with a flair for fascinating detail, Versailles comes alive.
Romantic Times
Fraser paints a more sympathetic portrait than some and more even-handed than others. She manages to balance Marie's life and the times to this reader's delight. Well-written and scrupulously researched.
Publishers Weekly
A child-princess is married off to a husband of limited carnal appetite. Her indiscretions and na vet , scorned by elderly dowagers, are coupled with charity, joie de vivre and almost divine glamour but her life is cut brutally short. The queen of France's life is rich in emotional resonance, riddled with sexual subplots and personal tragedies, and provides fertile ground for biographers. Fraser's sizable new portrait avoids the saccharine romance of Evelyne Lever's recent Marie Antoinette, balancing empathy for the pleasure-loving queen with an awareness of the inequalities that fed revolution after all, Marie herself was fully conscious of them. Her subject shows no let-them-eat cake arrogance, but is deeply (even surprisingly) compassionate, with a "public reputation for sweetness and mercy" that is only later sullied by vituperative pamphleteers and bitter unrest. She would sometimes be trapped by ingenuousness, and later by a fatal sense of duty. Yet her graceful bearing, acquired under the tutelage of her demanding mother, the empress Maria Teresa, made her an unusually popular princess before she was scapegoated as "Madame Deficit" and much, much worse. The portrait is drawn delicately, with pleasant touches of humor (a long-awaited baby is conceived around the time of Benjamin Franklin's visit: "Perhaps the King found this first contact with the virile New World inspirational"). Fraser's approach is controlled and thoughtful, avoiding the extravagance of Alison Weir's royal biographies. Her queen is neither heroine nor villain, but a young wife and mother who, in her journey into maturity, finds herself caught in a deadly vise. Color and b&w illus. It's a BOMC, History Book Club, Literary Guild and QPB selection. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Vivid prose and exhaustive research make memorable Fraser's biography of the doomed Austrian Archduchesse Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna, known as Antoine to her family and Marie Antoinette to the ages. The 15th child of Marie Theresa, Queen-Empress of Austria, and the youngest of eight sisters, all sharing the name Maria, little Antoine was to make a long and tragic journey from sheltered and ill-tutored child to 14-year-old wife of French Dauphin Louis Auguste, the future Louis XVI, to mother, to reviled and maligned queen, to a prematurely aged woman of 38, bound and shorn, being carted to the guillotine. Fraser dispels some of the more flagrant calumnies directed at the queen, such as her involvement in the affair of the Diamond Necklace, and her purported callous "let them eat cake" statement, which story, Fraser points out, was first told about the Spanish princess who married Louis IV some 100 years earlier. She makes a convincing case for Marie Antoinette's designation by the press, the politicians and Court intrigue as scapegoat not only for the ills of an economically troubled nation, but for the entire French Revolution as well. There are numerous illustrations, both b/w and color plates, genealogical charts, an abridged list of sources (which nevertheless runs to 12 pages), and an exhaustive index. Literally hundreds of books have been written about Marie Antoinette, and Fraser's contribution is a relevant, compassionate and accessible portrait of the woman. A solid as well as entertaining read. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, Anchor, 511p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Boatner
Library Journal
Fraser (Mary Queen of Scots) has written an exciting biography of a young Austrian woman named Marie Antoinette, the future bride of a future king of France, during a period of increasing political unrest. This volume moves quickly, but not without the most interesting of historical detail, through the courts of Austria and France. Marie Antoinette was the bride at 14 to Louis Auguste, her senior by just over a year; they both lacked the maturity for marriage, let alone the political leadership to command a European power. Fraser leads us through the daily lives of the two young people constantly before the public eye; from the planned marriage we move into an era of political and social revolution, knowing what the final violent outcome will be yet hoping for a different end. A well-researched biography that may cause one to rethink the role in which history has cast Marie Antoinette, this complements but doesn't replace Evelyne Lever's slightly less sympathetic Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Bruce H. Webb, Clarion Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A biography of a queen who never said, as legend has it, "Let them eat cake." Novelist and historian Fraser (Faith and Treason) manages to turn this spoiled, not-too-bright princess into a likable character. Pretty Marie was raised to further the Hapsburg family's political ambitions, as defined by her dominating mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary. Fraser presents her subject's childhood, full of dancing but short on books, as a smaller version of the proving grounds she would inhabit for the rest of her life. She fought her brothers and sisters for the time and attention of their mother; married to King Louis XVI, she vied to increase her power at Versailles; as a prisoner in the Tower, she fought for survival according to the rules of the Revolutionary Tribunal. At each of these challenges, she failed. For years, Marie's position at court was undermined by the king's refusal to have sex (or at least proper sex) with her. When she finally fulfilled her function and bore an heir, 11 years after marriage, France was already in the financial crisis that would lead to the convening of the Estates-General and, later, the Revolution. If she had been a more successful plotter, Antoinette may have saved her life and the lives of her children. But skeletons from past court intrigues-most involved the Queen's enemies taking advantage of her-as well as inaction on the part of her brother, Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, led her to the guillotine. For a brief few years, Antoinette did have a heyday, though. After the birth of her son, she made a splash by abandoning the elaborate dresses and makeup that marked Versailles, a bold move for the leading figure of worldfashion in the late-18th century. While Antoinette never made the oft-repeated line to peasants seeking bread, she was a spendthrift, a trait that helped do her in when the revolutionary lawyers made their case against her. Antoinette's story isn't really a tragedy-but Fraser somehow makes it seem like one.
From the Publisher
“Absorbing as ever, Fraser’s blend of insight and research persuades us that this unfortunate queen deserves neither the vilification nor the idealization she has received.”
The New Yorker

“Fascinating. . .filled with thorough research, fast-paced writing and loving attention to detail.”
The Globe and Mail

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385489492
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/12/2002
  • Edition description: First Anchor Books Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 153,277
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Since 1969 Antonia Fraser has written many acclaimed historical works which have been international bestsellers and is the recipient of many literary awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. These include the biographies Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, and King Charles II. Three highly praised books focus on women in history: The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England, The Warrior Queens, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Her most recent book was Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. She is editor of the series of Kings and Queens of England. Antonia Fraser is married to Harold Pinter and lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt

chapter one

A Small Archduchess

"Her Majesty has been very happily delivered of a small, but completely healthy Archduchess."

Count Khevenhuller, Court Chamberlain, 1755

On 2 November 1755 the Queen-Empress was in labour all day with her fifteenth child. Since the experience of childbirth was no novelty, and since Maria Teresa, Queen of Hungary by inheritance, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire by marriage, hated to waste time, she also laboured in another way at her papers. For the responsibilities of government were not to be lightly cast aside; in her own words: "My subjects are my first children." Finally, at about half past eight in the evening in her apartments at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Maria Teresa gave birth. It was a girl. Or, as the Court Chamberlain, Count Khevenhuller, described the event in his diary: "Her Majesty has been happily delivered of a small, but completely healthy Archduchess." As soon as was practical, Maria Teresa returned to work, signing papers from her bed.

The announcement was made by the Emperor Francis Stephen. He left his wife's bedroom, after the usual Te Deum and Benediction had been said. In the Mirror Room next door the ladies and gentlemen of the court who had the Rights of Entry were waiting. Maria Teresa had firmly ended the practice, so distasteful to the mother in labour (but still in place at the court of Versailles), by which these courtiers were actually present in the delivery room. As it was they had to content themselves with congratulating the happy father. It was not until four days later that those ladies of the court who by etiquette would formerly have been in thebedchamber were allowed to kiss the Empress. Other courtiers, including Khevenhuller, were permitted the privilege on 8 November, and a further set the next day. Perhaps it was the small size of the baby, perhaps it was the therapeutic effect of working at her papers throughout the day, but Maria Teresa had never looked so well after a delivery.

The Empress's suite of apartments was on the first floor of the so-called Leopoldine wing of the extensive and rambling Hofburg complex. The Habsburgs had lived in the Hofburg since the late thirteenth century, but this wing had originally been constructed by the Emperor Leopold I in 1660. It was rebuilt following a fire, then greatly renovated by Maria Teresa herself. It lay south-west of the internal courtyard known as In Der Burg. Swiss Guards, that doughty international force that protects royalty, gave their name to the adjacent courtyard and gate, the Schweizerhof and the Schweizertor.

The next stage in the new baby's life was routine. She was handed over to an official wet-nurse. Great ladies did not nurse their own children. For one thing, breastfeeding was considered to ruin the shape of the bosom, made so visible by eighteenth-century fashions. The philandering Louis XV openly disliked the practice for this reason. The traditional prohibition against husbands sleeping with their wives during this period probably counted for more with Maria Teresa, an enthusiast for the marital double-bed and the conception—if not the nursing—of ever increasing numbers of babies. As the Empress said of herself, she was insatiable on the subject of children.

Marie Antoinette was put into the care of Constance Weber, wife of a magistrate. Constance, according to her son Joseph Weber, who later wrote his memoirs, was famed for her beautiful figure and an even greater beauty of soul. She had been nursing little Joseph for three months when she took over the baby Archduchess, and it was understood in the family that Constance's appointment would improve all their fortunes. As the foster-brother of an archduchess, Joseph Weber benefited all his life; there were pensions for Constance as well as his other brothers and sisters. During Marie Antoinette's childhood, Maria Teresa took her to visit the Weber household; there she showered gifts upon the children and, according to Joseph, admonished Constance: "Good Weber, have a care for your son."

Maria Teresa was thirty-eight years old and since her marriage nearly twenty years earlier, she had produced four Archdukes as well as ten Archduchesses (of whom seven were living in 1755). The extraordinarily high survival rate of the imperial family—by the standards of infant mortality of the time—meant that there was no urgent pressure upon the Queen-Empress to produce a fifth son. In any case it seems that Maria Teresa had expected a daughter. One of her courtiers, Count Dietrichstein, wagered against her that the new baby would be a boy. When the appearance of a girl, said to be as like her mother as two drops of water, meant that he lost the bet, the Count had a small porcelain figure made of himself, on his knees, proffering verses by Metastasio to Maria Teresa. He may have lost his wager but if the new-born augusta figlia resembled her mother, then all the world would have gained.

If the birth of an eighth surviving daughter was not in itself a disappointment, was there not perhaps something inauspicious about the date itself, 2 November? This, the Feast of All Souls, was the great Catholic Day of the Dead, when the departed were solemnly commemorated in a series of requiem Masses, in churches and chapels heavily draped in black. What this actually meant during the childhood of Marie Antoinette was that her birthday was generally celebrated on its eve, the Feast of All Saints, a day of white and gold. Besides which, 13 June, the feast of her patron saint St. Antony, tended to be regarded as Marie Antoinette's personal day of celebration, just as the feast of St. Teresa of Avila on 15 October was the name-day of her mother.

If one looks to influences, the baby born on the sombre Day of the Dead must have been conceived on or around a far more cheerful feast of the church: 2 February, the traditionally candle-lit celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. An episode during the Empress's pregnancy could also be seen as significant. In April, Christoph Willibald Gluck was engaged by Maria Teresa to compose "theatrical and chamber music" in exchange for an official salary; this followed his successes in Italy and England as well as in Vienna. A court ball at the palace of Laxenburg, fifteen miles from Vienna, on 5 May 1755, marked his inauguration in this role. Two tastes that would impress themselves upon Marie Antoinette—a love of the "holiday" palace of Laxenburg and a love of the music of Gluck—could literally be said to have been inculcated in her mother's womb.

In contrast, the fact that a colossal earthquake took place in Lisbon on 2 November, with 30,000 killed, was not at the time seen as relevant. This was an age of poor European communications and news of the disaster did not reach Vienna until some time afterwards. It was true that the King of Portugal and his wife had been engaged to stand as the coming baby's godparents; the unfortunate royal couple had to flee from their capital at about the time Marie Antoinette was born. But, once again, this was not known at the time. In any case, royalties were not expected to be present at the event; according to custom, proxies were appointed in their absence: the baby's eldest brother, Joseph, and her eldest sister, Marianne, aged fourteen and seventeen respectively.

The baptism took place at noon on 3 November (baptisms were always held speedily and in the absence of the mother, who was allowed to recover from her ordeal). The Emperor went with a cortege to the Church of the Augustine Friars, the traditional church used by the court, and heard Mass, including the sermon. After that, at twelve o'clock, as Count Khevenhuller noted in his meticulous diary, which is an important source for our knowledge of events in Maria Teresa's family, the baptism was held in "the new and beautiful Anticamera" and performed by "our Archbishop," since the new Papal Nuncio had not yet made a formal appearance at court. The imperial family sat in a row on a long bench. Two galas were ordered: a great gala for the day of the baptism, and a lesser gala for the day after. On 5 and 6 November there were two more spectacles that were shown to the public for free, and on those days there was no charge to the public for entry at the city gates. It was all a very well established ritual.

The baby in whose honour these celebrations were held was given the names Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna. The prefix of Maria had been established for all Habsburg princesses in the days of the baby's great-grandfather, the Emperor Leopold I and his third wife Eleanora of Neuburg; it was intended to signify the special veneration of the Habsburg family for the Virgin Mary. Obviously in a bevy of eight sisters (and a mother) all enjoying the same hallowed prefix, it was not going to be used for everyone all the time. In fact the new baby would be called Antoine in the family.

The French diminutive of the baptismal name, Antoine, was significant. Viennese society was multilingual, people being able to make themselves easily understood in Italian and Spanish as well as in German and French. But it was French, acknowledged as the language of civilization, that was the universal language of courts throughout Europe; Frederick II of Prussia, Maria Teresa's great rival, for example, preferred his beloved French to German. It was French that was used in diplomatic despatches to the Habsburgs. Maria Teresa spoke French, although with a strong German accent (she also spoke the Viennese dialect), but the Emperor Francis Stephen spoke French all his life, not caring to learn German. In this way, both in the family circle and outside it, Maria Antonia was quickly transmogrified into Antoine, the name she also used to sign her letters. To courtiers, the latest archduchess was to be known as Madame Antoine.

Charming, sophisticated, lazy and pleasure-loving, an inveterate womanizer who adored his wife and family, Francis Stephen of Lorraine handed on to Marie Antoinette a strong dose of French blood. His mother Elisabeth Charlotte d'Orleans had been a French royal princess and a granddaughter of Louis XIII. Her brother, the Duc d'Orleans, had acted as Regent during the childhood of Louis XV. As for Francis Stephen himself, although he had Habsburg blood on his father's side and was adopted into the Viennese court in 1723 at the age of fourteen, it was important to him that he was by birth a Lorrainer. From 1729, when his father died, he was hereditary Duke of Lorraine, a title that stretched back to the time of Charlemagne. This notional Lorrainer inheritance would also feature in the consciousness of Marie Antoinette, even though Francis Stephen was obliged to surrender the actual duchy in 1735. It was part of a complicated European deal whereby Louis XV's father-in-law, who had been dispossessed as King of Poland, received the Duchy of Lorraine for the duration of his lifetime; it then became part of the kingdom of France. In return Francis Stephen was awarded the Duchy of Tuscany.

The renunciation of his family heritage in order to soothe France was presented to Francis Stephen as part of a package that would enable him to marry Maria Teresa. On her side, it was a passionate love match. The British ambassador to Vienna reported that the young Archduchess "sighs and pines all night for her Duke of Lorraine. If she sleeps, it is only to dream of him. If she wakes, it is but to talk of him to the lady-in-waiting." Wilfully, in a way that would be in striking contradiction to the precepts she preached as a mother, Maria Teresa set her heart against a far grander suitor, the heir to the Spanish throne. The medal struck for the wedding bore the inscription (in Latin): "Having at length the fruit of our desires."

The desires in question, however, did not include the bridegroom's continued enjoyment of his hereditary possessions. As his future father-in-law Charles VI crudely put it: "No renunciation, no Archduchess." Maria Teresa of course believed in total wifely submission, at least in theory, another doctrine that she would expound assiduously to her daughters. Her solution was to tolerate and even encourage her husband's Lorrainer relations at court, as well as a multitude of Lorrainer hangers-on.

The marriage of Maria Teresa's sister Marianna to Francis Stephen's younger brother Charles of Lorraine strengthened these ties; Marianna's early death left Maria Teresa with a sentimental devotion to her widower. Then there was Francis Stephen's attachment to his unmarried sister Princess Charlotte, Abbess of Remiremont, who was a frequent visitor. She shared her brother's taste for shooting parties, in which she personally participated. In the year of Marie Antoinette's birth, a party of twenty-three, three of them ladies, killed nearly 50,000 head of game and wild deer. Princess Charlotte fired over 9000 shots, nearly as many as the Emperor. This strong-minded woman was so devoted to her native Lorraine that she once said she was prepared to travel there barefoot.

Thus Marie Antoinette was brought up to think of herself as "de Lorraine" as well as "d'Autriche et de Hongrie." In the meantime Lorraine had become a foreign principality attached to France, so that princes of Lorraine who made their lives in France had the status of "foreign princes" only and were not accorded the respect due to foreign royalties nor that due to French dukes. This ambiguous status was one from which the foreign princes ever sought to escape, while those of superior birth in French courtly terms sought to hold them down. A seemingly small point of French etiquette—small at least to outsiders—was to be of considerable significance in the future of Francis Stephen's daughter.

This was an age of multiple intermarriage where royal houses were concerned. Insofar as one can simplify it purely in terms of her four grandparents, Marie Antoinette had the blood of the Bourbons—the Orleans branch—and of Lorraine on her father's side. More remotely, her Orleans great-grandmother, a Palatine princess known as Liselotte, brought her the blood of Mary Queen of Scots via Elizabeth of Bohemia—but this was to go back 200 years. On the maternal side, Marie Antoinette inherited German blood from her grandmother Elizabeth Christina of Brunswick-Wolfbuttel, once described as "the most beautiful queen on earth." Her appearance at the age of fourteen enchanted her husband Charles VI: "Now that I have seen her, everything that has been said about her is but a shadow devoured by the light of the sun." However, if exceptional beauty was to be found in the pool of genes that Marie Antoinette might inherit, it was also true that the lovely Empress became immensely large and dropsical in later years.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Antonia Fraser
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First Chapter

First Month: Discovery

For us, how did it start?

In an improbable place. My husband and I were surprised ourselves at our surroundings: in Italy, in a farmhouse outside of Todi, a Renaissance town made of stone the color of baked bread.

We felt in those surroundings a bit like Twain's Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur's court--except that in this case the court was a wedding celebration of a friend of ours whose fiancee was the doyenne of a certain group of druggie glitterati.

The wedding preparations that we watched from the sidelines involved a ragtag carnival of New York's disaffected, pale young people with dark sunglasses who populated the edges of the art world. The old sweetness of the beds of lavender and dusty thyme, and the bending olive trees, made strange contrast with the lounging, cattily gossiping bone-thin hangers-on to the wedding party. Everyone seemed still sweaty from the plane trip and acrid-smelling from too many Marlboro Lights.

Behind the small veranda where we sat, louche ex-models were making pasta in the kitchen, dressed in black bikinis and the white high-heeled hiking boots that were having a brief vogue. They were chopping fresh basil on a century-old slab of white, gray-veined marble. The groom, a rakish young attorney, paced the sloping lawn where the ceremony would be held, looking pleased and scared.

During a lull in the conversation, I gazed at my coffee and then at the line of the distant hills. A guest at the wedding, a part-time photographer or a gallery employee or a curator, with lank overprocessed blond hair and sharp features-a woman who had said nothing remarkable in my hearing for three days-suddenly leaned over toward me. She looked with a surprising compassion into my eyes and, still smoking ravenously, said, with absolute conviction:

"You're pregnant."

Was this some sort of conversation starter? Was this the New Age ramblings of someone who did not have much to say without resorting to the faux intuitive?

Nonetheless, something was going on. Was my cycle disturbed by travel? By the rich food we'd been eating? By the medicine I was taking to ease a sore knee?

When I went to wash my face some time later, my eyes in the mirror looked like nothing I'd ever seen before: yellowish and blurred, as if I were drunk. It must have been that which the wedding guest had seen. I thought maybe this had been caused by too much red Montepulciano wine, by jet lag, by anything, I half-prayed, but that thing.

After the pied-piper band scattered to make its way back across the ocean to Soho, my husband and I stayed on for a week to see a little of the country. But even as I waited, day by day, the question always at the back of my consciousness as we went sightseeing or napped in our high, white-plastered rooms, I felt something indisputable: a sickness in my gut. It was a kind of nausea that was entirely new to me: it had a richness to it, as if I had gotten sick by ingesting pure gold. If a mountain of sweets had been touched by Midas, I felt, that's what I had in my belly.

Ordinarily, when I've had scares, I've felt panic. This time, though, I felt far away from it. Every time I realized I could indeed be pregnant, I experienced, in spite of myself, a little thrill of joy.

We were in Perugina, the town of candy. There were whole streets devoted to varieties of one kind of nougat made from an ancient recipe. And still I felt that sick sweetness, surrounded by sweetness.

We asked a pleasant young woman pharmacist for a pregnancy kit. She leaned over very patiently and showed us the instructions in Italian, a language we did not understand at all: "Questa . . ." she said, speaking as if to a two-year-old and pointing at a picture of the strip with one line, "SI. Questa. . . ." she said, pointing to a picture of the strip with two lines: "NO." I recall a sense of absolute peace coming over me as we left with the packet in a small brown bag; a sense of fatalism; something that people in my cohort scarcely ever feel--a sense of events moving beyond one's control.

What will happen will happen, was something like the thought. Or even: What will happen has already happened.

When we found out for sure, we were in a neighboring town, a smaller one. The town was built up around a dark, cool bath that a medieval woman saint used to swim in.

We found out and gazed at one another--"in wild surmise." Then we reacted very differently. My husband needed to go for a run--and think; and I needed to sit still and not think. Male and female, after our first amazement, we reacted spontaneously, like different elements.

I went out to sit by myself, perfectly, uncharacteristically becalmed.

I sat on an old stone bench looking out over a deep, green, shadowy valley that the sun had saturated for days without number. My first thought was this: Thank God I have traveled a lot in my life when I was young.

Because now I will have to sit still.

For who knows how long.

For fifteen years birth control had never failed me; and then, when my heart and body longed for a baby, when I was newly married, when it was finally safe--birth control failed me. Was this baby "planned"? Technology did not plan this pregnancy; indeed, technology planned against it. It seemed my heart planned it. Like many women I would hear from later, I had the strong intuition that will and longing had somehow altered chemistry; that mother love, the mother wish, had created a different alchemy, more powerful than the alchemy of the lab or the product trial.

We returned to Washington, D.C., where we were living in a small apartment in an old leafy neighborhood. I soon lost the quiet confidence I had briefly felt, newly pregnant on a bench in the Italian sun. Being home meant that I was inducted into a medical system that had very clear expectations of me--but little room for me to negotiate my expectations of it.

I visited a highly respected practice and endured a brisk, efficient pelvic exam with a cold-handed ob-gyn. His focus on me (or, I should say, "me," since his attention seemed focused on an interchangeable "it") was entirely waist-down. I felt slightly irrational for being bothered by his manner. Clearly I was in good medical hands. Did it really matter that the man did not look me in the eye? Did it matter that the doctor, a heavyset fellow with a middle-European accent, had reminded me of Helmut Kohl attending impatiently to a routine briefing? When we left, I had the sad, sinking feeling of someone trying to summon the energy to do something creative within a rigid regime.

A few weeks later I met another of the obstetricians in the practice. The obstetricians rotated their duties. I wondered at the reason for this--did it help them to keep a professional distance? Was that good?

I was glad to know that this one would be a woman. I had a lot of questions to ask. I had just finished reading Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Birth, a terrifying expose of medical intrusiveness in the birthing profession: soaring C-section rates, needless forceps intervention, routine epidurals and episiotomies, the technique of forcing the labor into a preordained bell curve-all practices that were performed far less frequently in Europe, and Europe had better outcomes.

My obstetrician that day was a glamorous woman with perfectly coifed suburban hair, a tennis-toned figure, and an office full of gleaming French Provioncial furniture. Her husband was a powerful local developer; I had seen their picture in the society pages. She gazed at me as if she were the president of a one-woman bank and I was a high-risk loan applicant. My husband and I sat opposite her mighty desk, petitioning.

She said curtly that I could go ahead and ask my questions.

"Can you tell me what the C-section rate for our hospital is?" I asked politely, respectful and curious.

She looked uncomfortable. "I think it's about thirty per cent, but that figure is misleading. A number of those C-sections are high-risk. Since the hospital gets the difficult cases, you can't judge from the number with any accuracy."

I had read that this was a standard response, one of many that made it hard for parents to judge C-section probabilities of any given hospital for themselves. I tried another tack:

"What about the rate for this OB-GYN practice?"

She flushed. "Maybe nineteen percent. I'm not exactly certain. But all of the C-sections we perform are done for a good reason, you can rest assured."

"Is there any way for us to find the figures? Does the practice keep records?" In my innocence, I thought perhaps she didn't understand where she could find the data I was requesting. I had not yet done the kind of reading that I would do long afterwards, so I did not yet know that an ideological war was being waged over births in mainstream hospitals. I did not know that these seemingly innocent questions of mine were, to my obstetrician and virtually everyone else in the medical profession I would encounter on the way to the birth, part of a minefield of litigation, politics, vested interests, money, and beliefs about who holds the power over the delivery room. I thought I was asking about a biological process. More fool me.

"Believe me," she replied heatedly, like a politician on message, "an OB-GYN at this practice is only going to recommend a C-section if it is the medically called-for solution to a problem."

"Okay . . . , " I said, taking a silent step back at her defensiveness. I saw I was going to get nowhere further with that question.

"Well . . . what is the rate of epidurals?" I continued.

At this she laughed at me outright, an angry laugh. A note of casual contempt for my naivete filtered through her otherwise well-bred, well-modulated voice. "Everyone wants an epidural. You may think you can do without an epidural, but my dear, one good contraction and you will be begging for the injection like virtually everyone else." Her contempt astonished me.

"So epidurals are routine in this practice? I've read that some nurse-midwife practices find that they only need epidurals in about 60 per cent of the first births."

"I didn't say they were routine," she snapped. "I said everyone wants one, and we are not about to go against that preference. Just about every woman here gets an epidural block." I did not yet understand why she sounded like a politician under scrutiny.

"What about the episiotomy rate?" I pressed on, feeling extremely uncomfortable.
"Again, I don't have numbers, but it is part of the standard of care at this practice to give episiotomies just about every time."

"I read that in Europe, the episiotomy rate ranges from three to six per cent." Jessica Mitford had given the reason for this low number: European practitioners avoided the need for episiotomies by using a gentle massage of the perineal area; some used olive oil. A Belizean midwife whom I would listen to years later would explain that a steady application of warm oil on the perineum allowed her to deliver over eight hundred women without anesthetic in the rain forest, without even one of them tearing. It was hard for me to imagine the woman in front of me massaging anyone's perineum, let alone with a condiment.

"That can't be right. Your information is no good, I've never heard of that."

I was slowly getting angry, as well as feeling humiliated and diminished. Not only was she dismissing my questions without addressing them, she seemed to be dismissing my right to ask. She was acting as if it were irrational of me to request hard empirical information. But the doctor held my baby's well-being in her hands; and I, thoroughly infantilized by this new relationship of dependency, said nothing. Why should her professional status suddenly strip me of my lifelong assumption that a woman has a right to know? I wondered. Yet I felt intimidated.

"We do episiotomies on everyone," she continued, the air in the room thick with her impatience with me. "Especially for first births. We do them because it is easier to mend a straight, sterile cut than--" and here she fixed me with a glare--"a ragged, bloody-edged tear." She paused and spat out with barely contained hostility: "Some tears extend all the way from the vagina into . . . the anus."

And that did, indeed, shut me up.

As I would eventually find out, the glossy, efficient practice, and the medical establishment behind it, had a vested interest in not telling me any of this. What I did not know at that time was my first gynecologist's assumption of high medical intervention--one that a first-rate Washington practice takes for granted--is part of a dangerous standard of care that is unique to America. My friends and I and the women I would later interview as a way to find insight into the trauma of my first birth experience were all prepped and directed into this self-same journey with the self-same landmarks. Yet each of us was encouraged to think--and indeed did believe--that this was our unique birth experience, with hardships unique to our babies and ourselves.

But when you listen to women talk about birth, their horror stories about the medical profession are about something deeper and more fundamental than too much intervention; the thread that unites many is a telling, subtle, but distinctive lack of compassion.

My friend Yasmin, who lived upstairs, was five months ahead of me, vastly pregnant when I was still just queasy and struggling to get into my clothes. When I confided in her my qualms about my icy gynecologist, she told me about a similar experience. Early in her pregnancy, she had called her GYN about spotting. She got back one of those enraging, condescending, What-To-Expect kinds of answers: "It's nothing, it's nothing--but nonetheless, don't do any physical activity."

The OB-GYN's answer to Yasmin's question about spotting had only confused her further and, scared, she had begun to cry.

"Oh . . ." her OB-GYN had said, with ill-disguised horror. "You're upset."
Another new mother told me that after she had delivered twins through C-section, her doctor had come in to check the scar. She had gained fifty pounds because of a nausea that had restricted her food choices and was feeling self-conscious about it. The doctor checked the incision, explained that the incision was called "a bikini cut," and then went on to say that she didn't have to worry about it because she wouldn't be a candidate for a bikini anytime soon.
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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
"Et in Arcadia Ego": Even in Arcadia death is lurking.... Madame de Staël, thinking of the "brilliance and gaiety" of Marie Antoinette's early life in contrast to her later sufferings, was reminded of Poussin's great picture on the theme of the omnipresence of death: the reveling shepherds in the forest glade brought up short by the sight of a tomb with this menacing inscription. Yet hindsight can make bad history. In writing this biography, I have tried not to allow the somber tomb to make its presence felt too early. The elegiac should have its place as well as the tragic, flowers and music as well as revolution and counterrevolution. Above all, I have attempted, at least so far as is humanly possible, to tell Marie Antoinette's dramatic story without anticipating its terrible ending.

My concern, as the subtitle of the book indicates, has been to trace the twofold journey of the Austrian-born French queen. On the one hand, this was an important political journey, from her fatherland to act as an ambassadress -- or agent -- in a predominantly hostile country where she was nicknamed in advance L'Autrichienne. On the other hand, there was her journey of personal development from the inadequate 14-year-old bride to a very different mature woman, 20-odd years later.

In the course of tracing this journey, I have hoped to unravel the cruel myths and salacious distortions surrounding her name. Principal among them must be the notorious incident that has Marie Antoinette urging the poor, being without bread, to eat cake. This story was first told about the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV 100 years before the arrival of Marie Antoinette in France; it continued to be repeated about a series of other princesses throughout the 18th century. As a handy journalistic cliché, it may never die. Yet not only was the story wrongly ascribed to Marie Antoinette in the first place, but such ignorant behavior would have been quite out of character. The unfashionably philanthropic Marie Antoinette would have been far more likely to bestow her own cake (or brioche) impulsively upon the starving people before her.

On the subject of the queen's sex life -- insatiable lover? voracious lesbian? heroine of a single romantic passion? -- I have similarly tried to exert common sense in an area that must remain forever speculative (as indeed it was in her own day).

Biographers have their small, private moments of perception, the importance of which was recognized by the Goncourt brothers, admiring biographers of the queen in 1858: "A time of which one does not have a dress sample and a dinner menu, is a time dead to us, an irrecoverable time." Lafont d'Aussonne, author of an early post-Restoration study (1824), found an ear of wheat made out of silver thread on the floor of the queen's former bedroom at Saint Cloud at a sale -- and pocketed it. Two hundred years after the death of Marie Antoinette, I found the experience of being asked to don white gloves to inspect the tiny swatches in her Wardrobe Book at the Archives Nationales both appropriate and affecting, the pinpricks made by the queen to indicate her choice of the day's costume being still visible. I had, however, no desire to emulate Lafont d'Aussonne's act of pious theft -- if only because two gendarmes stood close behind my chair.

The Baronne d'Oberkirch, writing her memoirs just before the deluge, gave an unforgettable vignette of the aristocrats returning from an all-night ball at Versailles in their carriages, with the peasants already doing their rounds in the bright morning sunshine: "What a contrast between their calm and satisfied visages and our exhausted appearance! The rouge had fallen from our cheeks, the powder from our hair...not a pretty sight." Such a vision seems to sum up the contrasts of the ancien régime in France -- including the baronne's innocent assumption that the peasants were calm and satisfied. Certainly the wealth of female testimonies to the period and to the life of Marie Antoinette gives special immediacy to researchers. The women who survived felt an urgent need to relive the trauma and record the truth, a compulsion often modestly disguised as a little gift to their descendants: "C'est pour vous, mes enfants...," wrote Pauline de Tourzel, an eyewitness to some of the horrific incidents of the early Revolution, of her reminiscences. Probably no queen in history has been so well served by her female chroniclers.

In a book written in English about a French (and Austrian) subject, there is an obvious problem to do with translation. Nor does it have an easy solution. What is tiresomely obscure for one reader may be gratingly obvious to another. On the whole I have preferred to translate rather than not, in the interests of clarity. With names and titles I have also placed the need for clarity above consistency; even if some decisions may seem arbitrary in consequence, intelligibility has been the aim. As ever, it has been my pleasure and privilege to do my own research, except where individuals are specifically and most gratefully acknowledged. The sources are, with equal gratitude, listed in the References and Reference Books. (Antonia Fraser)

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Reading Group Guide

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

"Fascinating . . . the court at Versailles comes alive." –The Washington Post

The introduction, discussion questions, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Antonia Fraser's acclaimed biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

1. How important was Marie Antoinette's childhood in Austria–historical enemy of France–in influencing her career? Would it ever have been possible for an Austrian princess to have a satisfactory life in France?

2. Was Marie Antoinette's relationship with her mother, the Empress Maria Teresa, a damaging or a supportive element of her life?

3. Marie Antoinette's marriage to the Dauphin, later Louis XVI, remained unconsummated for seven and a half years. What effect did this have on her character–and her relationship wth her husband?

4. Were the accusations of extravagance and frivolity leveled against Marie Antoinette justified–both during her own lifetime and since? Marie Antoinette was also the target of numerous vicious libels about her sexuality. What part did these libels played in blackening the image of royalty in France, and how valid were they?

5. Assess the political role of Marie Antoinette in the years shortly before the French Revolution: Should she have tried to influence Louis XVI more or was she correct to let history take its own course?

6. Marie Antoinette was a patron of the arts and a nature enthusiast. Is philanthropy an essential part of the royal role?

7. Once the French Revolution started, Marie Antoinette could probably have escaped by herself, or with her little son disguised as a girl. Instead she saw it asher duty to remain at the King's side. Knowing that she was an unpopular queen, why did she make that decision?

8. Marie Antoinette's courage and composure at her trial and execution aroused widespread admiration at the time, even from her enemies. How much had her character changed since her youth? Or were such qualities always latent in her personality?

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 88 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Detailed and engaging

    I've read this book twice, and think it is absolutely wonderful. I knew almost nothing about Marie Antoinette before I read it, except some of the rumors, such as the infamous "Let them eat cake" comment, which Fraser is careful to dispel. This book presents a touching portrait of a queen who fell spectacularly from grace in the eyes of her subjects, and the events that led to her fall. Fraser does not absolve Marie Antoinette of spending lavishly while her subjects went hungry, but at the same time does present reasoning and understanding so that readers may comprehend that among the nobility she was not unique in this and was following an accepted standard. Though some may accuse Fraser of being too compassionate toward the queen, I think her research and insights are dead on, and am happy to read a biography that does not justify, but works against the vilification of a queen already made infamous by slander and libel in her own time and years after her death. To me, this book gives a much fairer picture of Marie Antoinette, coupled with a harrowing glimpse of the French Revolution as it began. Very informative, a great read if you are interested in this particular time in history.

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The best biography of Marie Antoinette

    If you read only one book about Marie Antoinette, let it be this one. And if you don't like history or nonfiction, don't let that daunt you either; even as non-fiction, this book beats all the fictionalized novels about Marie Antoinette. In this case, the real story is just as thrilling. Fraser's research is great, and the attention to detail and emotion is stronger than in most non-fiction or history books. This one is the best!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2007

    interesting history

    Never has a history book been so interesting. I'm usually a fan of fictional historical romance or of fiction books. But this book was so captivating that i read it in a matter of 2 weeks 'it's a pretty long book'. I was never bored reading this and i certainly learned some history

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2007

    A brillant book!

    I had been wanting to read this book for quite sometime, and I was thrilled when I checked it out from the library. It was a brillant book! It had everything: drama, action, tragedy, romance, and even some comedy, and it wasn't even fiction! Antonia Fraser is a fantastic writer, and I plan on reading some more of her books. Normally, I don't cry while reading a book, but this one made me tear up when Louis was forced to leave his family and be executed. Also, it makes you see Marie Antoinette, not as the spoiled, cruel, vicious adultress who seduced every man[though she did conduct one affair], but as a brave, compassionate, loyal, and wonderful person. Someone who didn't derserve to be exuecuted.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2006

    Marie Antoinette a real woman I wish I knew.

    Takes a little while to get into the story. A lot of names, dates, places, etc to remember. Once Marie Antoinette settles into Versailles you start to keep up with the names and such. But this story gives Marie Antoinette a human aspect, not just a historical figure who said 'let them eat cake' (which is debunked by the way). By the time it gets to the revolution and this desperate family is trying to find ways out you really start rooting for their side. You want them to escape and get away from the mobs. I actually got teary-eyed when poor Louis XVI is carted away to the guillotine. Antoinia Fraser doesn't let Marie Antoinette get away with being the 'perfect queen' though, she was far from it. All in all a very good read and I will probably read it again. If you are going to see the Sofia Coppola movie, read this, it will clear up some historical questions you may have.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2007

    Excellent Bio

    This book was an excellent biography of the life of Marie Antoinette. Fraser did a great job setting the record straight on the whole 'let them eat cake' fiasco and explained the reasoning for why she is considered the biggest scapegoat of the French Revolution. If you saw the Sohpia Coppola bio-pic then you know she didn't do the queen justice.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2007

    A Great Read!

    I bought this book after first seeing the movie- which I loved!!! This book is a great read for anyone who is looking to learn about history. Admittedly it can get a little slow at times, but not so much that you lose interest in the book. It is by far one of the most interesting and well-done biographies that I have read and I truely do suggest that anyone with even a mild interest in Marie Antoinette give it a shot- and if you find the book too dry, watch the movie!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2005

    It was Amazing

    Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey is a very well written biography of the often misunderstood Queen. While presenting all the details, Antonia Fraser pulls the reader in to the life of this Austrian princess. Although the book is rather long, it is only a tough read, when attempting to finish it in a weekend. I highly suggest this great book to all considering it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 8, 2014

    Excellent!

    Excellent!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2013

    Enchanting

    I have read this book over and over again. It is so well written that i not only learn about this extaordinary woman but also get lost in her world. I bought it on my Nook because my paperback was falling apart.


    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2012

    Interesting bio

    Presents a more nuanced picture of the subject. In this well written and researched book, Marie Antoinette assumes a human and, at times, very sympathetic dimension.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    Incredibly boring

    See headline

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2011

    Well done

    Ms. Fraser captures the pomp, tedium and subterfuge of the court. Marie comes across at first as a naive teen who develops into a mature elegant, dignified representative of royalty. Some of the horrors of the revolution are vividly depicted. I came away from the reading with a more positive impression of the woman than I had had from history courses.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great Biography

    This is one of the first non-fiction books I have ever read, and I really enjoyed reading it, I also watched the PBS film Marie Antoinette by David Grubin in which Antonia Fraser appears.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 27, 2010

    piece of cake

    this is a real treat for history lovers. l would recommend this for 12+. the story is very detailed, even breaks down intereuropean ideas and alliances into something you can understand. very good and highly recommended. - pengwin, from her NOOKcolor!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting book, great read!

    I was inspired to read Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette after having read Alison Weir's biography about Henry VIII and his wives. Fraser's book was a wonderful read - well researched, and very engaging. She did a good job of presenting the facts of her research while at the same time offering just enough of her own opinion or interpretation of the facts to keep the book interesting (although the straight facts were very interesting on their own.) The pictures that were included with the book were a great addition and added to the reader's ability to feel drawn into the world of Marie Antoinette and Versailles. Overall, I thought this was a wonderful book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historical figures.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2009

    Great story

    Very enjoyable history of a most misunderstood person.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    started off good....

    It really started good then it dragged on and on. I had to put the book down and then start another finishing this one here and there. It is a really nice looking book, lots of nice pictures. Better then the story... I think after finally finishing it that Marie Antoinette was murdered for lies that were spread. I feel sorry for her in this story. It's too bad what happened to her. I'd recommend this book if you have ALOT of time on your hands and would really want to know what happend to her.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2007

    Great Biography

    Great biography, meticulously researched, and well written. I don't think a better biography on Marie Antoinette will ever be written.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2007

    A reviewer

    Excellent read. Fraser was very thorough...a little 'too' thorough because the book can at times be long and drawn out...but can't complain. Also sets the record straight on the whole 'let them eat cake' fiasco. Definitely recommended for anyone interested.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 88 Customer Reviews

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