At the age of fifteen, Marie Antoinette, beautiful and charming bride to the impotent Dauphin, is plunged into the intrigue of Versailles. Frivolous and reckless, she flouts the strict and demanding etiquette of the glittering court, and discovers the true nature of love, hate and jealousy. But the clouds of revolution are overhead, and Marie Antoinette, who only wishes to enjoy life, learns too late that the price of her enjoyment is very high...
Browsing through the extensive list of Jean Plaidy’s books I decided to read Flaunting, Extravagant Queen, about the life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France from 1774 to 1792. I have to confess that my knowledge regarding French history is sadly lacking, which was one of the reasons that made me choose this book, plus the other day I saw a documentary about this fascinating and misunderstood woman and have been wanting to learn more about her ever since.
When the story begins, Marie Antoinette is a fourteen-year-old careless child somewhat neglected by her mother, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, being the youngest girl in a long line of brothers and sisters (her mother had 11 girls and 5 boys, 10 of whom reached adulthood), her education was slightly deficient, which resulted in a preference for music and dancing instead of languages and mathematics.
Wanting to strengthen the alliance between the two old enemy countries, Maria Theresa, managed to arrange the marriage between her youngest daughter and Louis Auguste, Dauphin of France. Due to the fact that Marie Antoinette was used to leading a relaxed court life in Austria, after the alliance was settled, her mother tried to educate her on French etiquette and rules. And from the start we notice that she finds it all a bit too much and even a little ridiculous!
On May 7th, 1770, Marie Antoinette is officially passed on to the French, on neutral territory, in a ceremony where for the first time she is humiliated and made to feel like a foreigner. Comtesse de Noailles, her first lady-in-waiting, later nicknamed Madame Etiquette by the Dauphine, made her undress and remove all of her Austrian clothes, not even a small ring which had been a present from her mother, was allowed, everything from head to toe had to be French, before she entered their country. We almost feel like this ceremony is an omen for what destiny holds in store for Marie Antoinette.
Louis Auguste, Duc de Berry and Dauphin of France, was a fifteen-year-old boy who was never much interested in politics or court life, being shy and indecisive he felt more at ease spending his time with manual labour and playing with his locks. In the beginning he acted somewhat distant and cold towards his Dauphine, he almost seemed to be scared of her, and the marriage was never consummated because he thought he was impotent. With time they became a little closer and seven years later, with the help of her brother Joseph, Emperor of Austria, the couple figured out that the King only needed corrective surgery to be able to consummate the marriage.
On May 10th, 1774, Louis XV, King of France, died from an attack of the smallpox and his grandson, Louis Auguste finally acceded the throne as Louis XVI, Le Désiré. Despite his best intentions Louis XVI was never cut out to be King, he lacked the necessary backbone to lead the kingdom and its people. France at the time was having serious financial problems and the people were starving in the streets, and instead of blaming the right person, everyone turned against the Queen, the foreigner, the Autrichienne, as she was called.
Everything she did was observed, criticised, she was accused of spending too much money on clothes and jewellery while the people were starving, slandering publications were passed around portraying the Queen in the most shameful scenes, she was said to have lovers, men and women, in sum, she was an easy scapegoat, only because she was a foreigner, everything got blamed on her. The situation escalated with the affair of the necklace, a piece of jewellery said to cost 2.000.000 livres, which was stolen by Jeanne de Valois, who managed to involve the Queen in her plot. And even though the culprit had been found and imprisoned, there were those who said everything had been planned by Marie Antoinette and that she kept the necklace stored in a locked box.
On July 14th, 1789, one of the most important events of the French Revolution took place, the Storming of the Bastille. That was one of the first steps in the decline of the King and Queen, leading four years later to their death by the guillotine.
What I most liked about this book was the author’s objectivity, most of the time Marie Antoinette is portrayed as an airhead, a shallow woman and even a harlot, it usually depends on who’s telling the story, but Jean Plaidy tells us the facts and lets us draw our own conclusions. I don’t think that this is an easy book though, fans of light historical romance might be disappointed, the language is accessible, the story never gets boring but I’d recommend it to more hard core history fans who enjoy tons of details. There are certain scenes that had to be understandably abbreviated, nevertheless she managed to pack a lot of history in 482 pages.
As I said before, I’m far from an expert in French history, but I didn’t notice any huge flaws or anachronisms, and even one of the most polemic issues was lightly approached, Marie Antoinette’s affair with Count Fersen. Many say she was her lover and others say she wasn’t, so Plaidy chose to never really reveal her opinion, she described their common attraction, said how much they loved each other but apart from one or two scenes at the end (that to me can be interpreted both ways), the affair wasn't the focus and you can almost dismiss it from your mind. Which I thought was very smoothly done!
I liked it so much that I’d continue on writing about the details indefinitely, that’s a sure sign of enjoyment, sometimes I get stumped with what to say or criticise, with this book I just had to restrain myself not to write more. In the meantime I discovered that there’s one more book featuring Marie Antoinette, it’s The Queen of Diamonds. I’ll surely be looking out for it!
I have to thank the ladies at the Historical Tapestry for inviting me to review a book by this author, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it at this time without their invitation, and I would surely be missing out.
Ana O. can be visited at Miss Picky's Column, her newly revamped blog.