Yesterday was Bastille Day, which was actually only bought to my attention by photos of champagne and macarons on Instagram. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the absolute worst book to be reading on Bastille Day is a biography of Marie Antoinette. So what I was doing on Bastille Day? Reading Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette, specifically the latter part which includes Bastille Day. Which is swiftly followed by Marie Antoinette and her famille‘s imprisonment, the subsequent execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the neglect and death of their eight year old son Louis Charles, and the eventual (seriously, it took ages) liberation of their daughter Marie Therese.
I have come to French history relatively late, as I seem to be one of the very few people who did not study the French revolution at school (we did the Chinese and Russian Communist revolutions instead). However, it is much more fun to not have formally studied a subject, as formal study seems to require ripping it apart at the seams and pointing repeatedly at the THEMES and ISSUES and SYMBOLISM before writing endless practice essays until any interesting fact is ground to dust and scattered to the four winds. Much better to accidentally stumble onto a subject and then putter about learning bits and pieces and then try to string it all together with judicious use of Wikipedia (supremely helpful for keeping track of incestuous royal families and equating contemporary monarchies).
I fell into French history (more specifically, pre- and post-revolutionary French history, Louis XIV to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, then Napoleon and Josephine, and a giant meh to the revolutionaries) through that wonder of modern life, the 3 for 2 book deal. The free book I chose was Ian Thompson’s The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre Le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles, which is a truly beautiful book full of reproductions of the plans and paintings of the gardens at Versailles, and details of the endless challenges faced by Louis XIV’s head gardener Andre Le Notre, and the rather sweet friendship that developed between gardener and absolute monarch. As a rather fitting bookend, I am currently reading Alain Baraton’s The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden, containing some memorable anecdotes about his current (at the time of publishing) job as head gardener at Versailles. Apparently, the guards are kept quite busy chasing off those visitors who wish to appreciate the gardens while wearing rather less clothing than normal!
Rootling around on the internet produced the next avenue, the unfortunate princess herself, Marie Antoinette. In a typical move, I then proceeded to ignore what is considered by many to be the seminal biography of Marie Antoinette (the aforementioned by Antonia Fraser, which was used as a basis for Sofia Coppola’s movie Marie Antoinette) and instead read Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution and Ian Dunlop’s Marie Antoinette. Dunlop’s book is a well structured narrative of Marie Antoinette’s life, with each chapter focusing on a significant event or stage, such as her marriage or the Diamond Necklace Affair (surely one of the most tragi-comic events to occur in anyone’s life). He also provides some good background and context on Louis XIV, the Versailles court, and the corresponding palaces of Versailles and Marie Antoinette’s childhood home of Schonbrunn (both incidentally wonderful places to visit).
Weber’s book takes a different approach by examining the fashions that Marie Antoinette deployed at various points during her few decades at Versailles. As French queens were expected to have no political power (regardless of what Marie Antoinette’s Austrian connections were hoping for), Marie Antoinette became very good, very quickly at projecting and protecting her own status, power and personality through the clothes she chose to wear. For instance, not long after arriving at Versailles as a 14 year old, Marie Antoinette refused to wear the grand corps corset (although she did eventually relent), she wore men’s riding clothes to ingratiate herself with her new grandfather Louis XV, and later, the flowing white dresses and straw hats of the Petit Trianon as a repudiation of the strict formality of the Versailles court. Not to mention the frankly amazing towering pouf hairstyles which she is probably best known for.
Having now read Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette, it definitely is probably the best overall summation of Marie Antoinette’s life, and Fraser rebuts every single one of the accusations and myths surrounding the former queen using primary documents and well reasoned argument. Speaking of Antonia Fraser, I now have Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King added to my To Be Read list, as well as Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen and the Revolution. It’s nice to know that there’s always another book to read…