‘Marie Antoinette’ is one of the earliest full-length biographies, which focuses on the controversial last queen of France. The book is so persuasive and moving, that it continues to inspire modern day interpretations of this doomed queen’s story – including a film adaptation in 2006!
In his book, Zweig explores the character of one of the most notorious victims of the the French Revolution, whose head was swiftly cut off by the power of the guillotine. For centuries, Marie Antoinette’s memory has been well and truly blackened. She has been branded as a foolish, traitorous wanton, who lived a life of luxury and scandal whilst the rest of France suffered from starvation. What’s more, she was found guilty of betraying French state secrets, purely for the benefit of her own political ambitions. How could such a villain be redeemed, even 200 years after her death?
This is when Stefan Zweig steps in! Widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the 20th century, Zweig decided to publish a biography on Marie Antoinette’s life. During his research, he was persuaded to view Marie Antoinette as nothing more than an ordinary woman, who was tragically destined to find herself at the centre of an extraordinary moment in French history. Zweig published his work, in the hope of dispelling some of slander plaguing Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and consequently to transform widespread public condemnation, into sympathy and admiration.
Firstly, I have to applaud Zweig for remaining as unbiased as possible throughout the book. It is obvious that he felt great affection towards his heroine. Yet that did not stop him from willingly criticising Marie Antoinette’s character whenever the opportunity arose. In my opinion this very honest account of the Queen’s life, only strengthened Zweig’s attempt in portraying her as a flawed and average individual, who was very similar to you and I.
On the other hand, Zweig was equally eager to defend Marie Antoinette’s behaviour. The most fascinating for me was Zweig’s eagerness to delve into the very intimate details of Marie’s life. He argued that without doing so, no historian could truly claim to have a full understanding their historical subjects.
Within the book, a whole chapter is devoted to the early years of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV’s marriage. Zweig argues, that because Louis was initially incapable of consummating their union, (and therefore unable to produce any heirs to the throne), the royal couple may have suffered from some psychological scaring. He demonstrates how the publicised scandals and the widespread humiliation the pair endured, may have negatively impacted upon their mental wellbeing. This in turn, would have naturally impacted upon their later behaviour throughout their reign. This refreshingly new outlook upon Marie Antoinette’s life, not only makes her more relatable to a 21st century audience, but also supports Zweig in his quest to display the Queen as an unfortunate victim of her time.
By exploring all aspects of her life, Stefan Zweig was able to describe the very human side to Marie Antoinette’s personality. The Marie Antoinette that the reader is introduced to is very stubborn, spontaneous, fun-loving, naive, rebellious and loveable. In addition, Marie also experienced fear, loss, vulnerability and love. Readers follow her as a young princess, who desired nothing more than to impress her formidable mother and yet rebelled against the strictness of her education. A few chapters later, and they encounter a teenager who is forced to enter the vicious world of Versailles, whilst unable to carry out her duties in begetting children. Is it any wonder then, that she sought pleasure from all available luxuries, and vied for the affection from all whom she classed as her friends?
Eventually, the Marie Antoinette that everyone knows emerges onto the scene. This is the Queen of France who falls from grace during the height of the French Revolution; who loses her crown, her freedom and eventually her life. However, instead of reading about a vain, vicious and power-hungry she-wolf, Zweig’s audience learn about a woman who was punished for other individual’s political misjudgements. They realise how Marie Antoinette was merely an easy target for France’s contempt and revenge. By the end of her life, they discover how this heroine behaved in a way which aimed to protect her livelihood and her family, then finally her dignity.
Zweig’s book is powerful, simply because it forces his readers to confront their initial perceptions of Marie Antoinette. We find ourselves asking the brutal question, of whether we would have reacted any differently if we were placed in Marie’s situation, (and of course without the beauty of hindsight)?
Ok, so I have to admit that Zweig’s writing style could be very descriptive at times. I found myself scanning through lines and lines, which conveyed exactly how Marie Antoinette was feeling during a certain moment in her life. Later I will then scan through another paragraph, which was solely devoted to painting a clear picture of the weather! Now I don’t know about you… but I highly doubt Zweig would be able to present these as absolute historical accuracies without witnessing it for himself, or finding it within a historical document? I know it’s easy to presume that Marie Antoinette felt fear during the morning of her execution, but unless it is stated categorically within a contemporary source, I strongly feel that it has no place within a scholarly biography. It repelled the historian within me, who was told time and time again never to use descriptive language within you work, because it distracts the reader from your argument. (By all means feel free to use artistic licence, but only when writing historical fiction)!
Secondly, it disappointed me that there were no references or a bibliography at any point throughout the book. In his Afterword, Zweig did explain why refused to use certain sources, (which was admittedly very interesting and relevant to the story of Marie Antoinette’s legacy). However, I could tell that Zweig had extensively researched his heroine, yet there was regrettably no evidence to prove this!
Lastly, I have to say that it frustrated me that some sources were not translated from their original French text. Once again I found myself scanning through pages which I couldn’t understand, but would have been relevant to the story. Ultimately however, it brutally (and rightly) highlighted, just how woefully inadequate I am in understanding foreign languages!
Overall I absolutely adored this book! I would highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to discover more about the last queen of France, and the French Revolution as a whole.
I have to confess, that initially I was sceptical of Zweig achieving his goal in changing the public’s perception. My own judgement was clouded by the horrendous accusations surrounding Marie Antoinette, and I feared that I wouldn’t warm to her. Thankfully, I was persuaded to perceive the Queen as nothing more than an normal human being, living at the centre of an inhumane time. She was neither a saint nor a sinner, and Zweig’s honest and unbiased account helped to prove that to me.
Ok, so maybe Zweig’s descriptive writing style and lack of references may have hindered the perfection of his book in my eyes. However, it certainly didn’t stop this biography from being a truly enjoyable, engaging and emotive read.
(P.S. There are no pictorial references in this book. I feel that I have to tell you this, just in case you are like me and want to know what every single individual looked like! If this is the case, then prepare yourself for hours upon hours of Google searching individuals in 18th century France! This will hopefully satisfy your curiosity)…
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