Becoming Marie Antoinette: Juliet Grey

This book is exactly what it says on the tin: how Maria Antonia of Austria, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I, was molded into Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. It was an arduous process that began when she was ten years old; that was when the first overtures came from Louis of France proposing a match between his grandson the Dauphin and the appropriately aged daughter of the Austrian court. From that day Antonia’s life took a swift turn from a rather carefree childhood into the increasingly difficult – and dangerous – realm of royal bride.

In the four years that passed between the first overture to the completed contract, Antonia had to learn to manage all of the finer points of a new court – from hair and makeup and new styles of clothing (including “less forgiving” corsets) to history and music, to a language she never cared to apply herself to, down to the unique manner of walking no great lady of Versailles would consider not practicing. Meanwhile she continued under the close scrutiny of two courts, waiting for her menses to begin and for her to develop a more womanly figure. Over her head cut-throat negotiations continued between her mother and her prospective husband’s grandfather – these continued to the point that Antonia finally reached France. It seems as though it was only through the empress’s extreme doggedness that the wedding ever happened at all.

The short version of the story is that being a princess was far from being all beautiful fabrics and rich food and stunning gardens. And Prince Charming was not to be expected.

The narrative is presented with, for the most part, Antonia’s tight third person point of view, broken occasionally for things she could not know about by the insertion of letters and official documents. The language is young, maturing (slightly) as the book progresses and the narrator matures (slightly); the age of the voice is very well modulated.

Lately I’ve been expressing my concerns about writers using real people as characters in their fiction. (I seem to be one of the only people bothered by this, so this is mainly talking to myself, I suppose.) So why am I singularly untroubled by Becoming Marie Antoinette? I think it lies in three things: distance, author’s motivation/respect for the subject, and the standing and condition of the person in question. Whether it’s logical or not, time passage makes a difference to me: the 1770’s are, or seem, much more distant even than the early 1800’s; the farther back into history a book is set, the less it troubles me, whether because the longer ago it was the more a person becomes a figure of history or because family currently living is less likely to be hurt or something else I haven’t determined yet. I do know that using someone who was living and breathing within my lifetime is highly offensive to me, while using, say, Chaucer, as Margaret Frazer does, is rather intriguing. To the second point, Becoming Marie Antoinette is a biographical novel, with an intent to both entertain and educate. (Both goals very nicely achieved, by the way.) From the author’s notes, Juliet Gray developed a passionate fondness for Maria Antonia, and one of her missions is to try to combat the common image of the flighty and irresponsible queen. My impression of some of the works that use Jane Austen, the example who has been on my mind of late, has been far more along the lines of “Jane Austen is fashionable! I’ll make her a detective and sell millions of books!” If nothing else, it’s undignified, and lacks the respect Jane Austen is due. But it’s standing, I think, that makes the biggest difference to me. It’s in what I hypothesize the subject’s outlook to be. Would she mind her avatar being co-opted, words being placed in her mouth that she never would have dreamed of saying and actions attributed to her that she never would have considered? Obviously, I have no deeper insight into the two women this paragraph is about than I have been able to gain from my unscholarly reading. But for Jane Austen, oh, yes, I have no doubt in the world that she would have more than minded. She was a private citizen. Private in terms of someone who had no public presence – her books were initially published anonymously – and also very much private in terms of having no desire for parading or being paraded in public. (I hesitate to refer to her as “Jane” in my reviews; it would have been such an intolerable presumption.) Marie Antoinette? I don’t know. She was accustomed to her every move being scrutinized and discussed, used to everyone knowing who she was and what she said and did. My instinct – all I have to go on, really – is that she would have been charmed and flattered. And that makes a huge difference in my perception.

There is one more thing that comes into play here. Voice. Becoming Marie Antoinette is written as if Maria Antonia is telling the story. Some of the other books I referred to earlier, the Jane Austen Detective books, are supposedly recently discovered Austen memoirs. Presuming to write in Jane Austen’s voice is … I saw the adjective “ambitious” used in a review, and that is certainly a kind word for it. I used “hazardous” once; we’ll go with that to be nice. Here, though, the hazard does not exist. For one thing, there is little enough to compare to, especially for the layman; for another, there is a genuineness – and, yes, respect – for the subject which solidifies the whole.

Becoming Marie Antoinette an eye-opening book, obviously partisan, for a woman who needed partisans. It’s the first of three following the princess-become-dauphine-become-queen through to the end, and I’ll be interested in the rest of the story.

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