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Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Titles Expose Details of Marie Antoinette's Life

With a current international interest in Marie Antoinette and Sofia Coppola's enchanting movie about the ill-fated queen playing in theatres, it's no wonder that the book world is keeping pace. Here are a few new titles.

Abundance: a Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, 2006) is based on Antonia Fraser's definitive biography, Marie Antoinette: the Journey, published in 2002. It is written from the perspective of Antoinette, starting at age 14 when she left Austria to age 38 when she was beheaded.

Living in the lavish cocoon of Versailles, the charming Dauphine's main problem was producing an heir to the throne, since her awkward young husband showed much more interest in hunting than sex. Seven years later the problem was diagnosed and, after a simple operation on the Dauphin, the two consummated their marriage and went on to become good friends and the parents of two sons and two daughters.

When, upon the death of his grandfather, the twenty-year-old Dauphin became King Louis XVI and Antoinette his Queen, he is reported to have said, "Protect us Lord, for we are too young to reign." The well read but fatally indecisive Louis XVI was much more aware than his wife of the tremendous changes that would soon sweep Europe, but he was ill prepared to stop them. He was also disinclined to deny his bubbly bride anything her heart desired, including expensive getaway retreats and outrageous clothing budgets.

"Abundance" has been criticized for being too sympathetic to Antoinette, but it does humanize the infamous Queen and can be seen as part of the recent effort of rehabilitate her image. She was kind, loyal, a good mother, and fairly insignificant as a cause of the Revolution. I found the actual text of letters to and from Antoinette to be particularly enlightening.

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber (Henry, Holt and Co., 2006) is a detailed, but very readable, account of the impact Antoinette had on the fashions of the time. Weber, an associate professor of French at Barnard College, posits that as a woman Antoinette could have little influence over the politics of the time, but she could have a great deal of control over what the Court wore. She draws comparisons to Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy.

French court clothing was much more elaborate than that of Austria. Following Antoinette's early rebellion against the whalebone corset, she went on to embrace ever more extravagant styles, including outrageous pouf hairstyles. Later, she tired of the Court formality and spent as much time as she could in simple muslin dresses at her country retreats.

The Private Realm of Marie Antoinette by Marie-France Boyer (Thames & Hudson, 2006) is a visual feast of the palaces, rooms, retreats, and gardens occupied by the Queen. Louis XVI even built her an entire rustic village, complete with farm animals and 732 glazed pots, full of flowers, decorated with the queen's emblem.

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr (Henry, Holt and Co., 2006) helps to put Marie Antoinette's sins in perspective. Dr. Ruth Scurr, a professor in the Department of Social and Political Science at King's College in London, traces the rise of this ardent young lawyer who defended the poor to a leadership position in the bloody French Revolution.

Even though Maximilien Robespierre opposed the death penalty as late as 1791, once in power he was a firm believer in the ends justifying the means, and he was instrumental in sentencing thousands of foes, including former friends, to the guillotine. He himself met the same fate in 1794, bringing the Terror to an end. By the way, he tried to commit suicide rather than face the blade, whereas Louis and Antoinette both behaved with dignity.

The French Revolution (New Video DVD, 2005).

This History Channel feature-length documentary uses "dramatic reenactments, paintings from the era, and revealing accounts from the journals and expert historians" to explain the Revolution. Narrated by actor Edward Herrmann, it is a good introduction to this ground shaking event.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.