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Monday, 30 January 2017

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Evelyne Lever

Lever’s easy-to-read account of the infamous French Queen, Marie Antoinette, brings her story to life almost as a novel might. The reader is led into sympathy for the young Queen, having been sent to a foreign country at a tender age and being forced to survive in the trying environment of Versailles in such a public marriage. Lever details how trying Antoinette found her situation and how she longed for some sense of normality, creating a haven for herself at Trianon. She disliked the constant rituals of royalty and found public duties tiresome, leading her to break with some traditions. Surprisingly, however, she did not push against one of the more invasive customs – that French queens had to give birth publicly in order to prove the legitimacy of their child.

In all other senses when it came to her children she does not seem to have wished to follow in the distant relationship expected from royals. Lever paints her as maternal, with a desire to be active in her children’s life, and even wished to breastfeed them herself. Her apparent motherly instincts seem at odds with those of her own mother, who is depicted as manipulative, using emotion against her children in order to manoeuvre them into positions of influence. Political dominance seems to have been a greater concern to her than her own children’s happiness, not uncommon at this time, but exaggerated in her family. Indeed, Marie Antoinette seems to have received very little affection from her family at large; her tragic figure imprisoned near the end of her life, believing her family would save her when in fact they had no intention to help.

Marie Antoinette is often vilified for her excesses and political ineptitude, but this biography paints a softer picture – one of a young woman thrust into court life without sufficient training to succeed. A woman whose intuition about the views of the people of France was severely lacking, but a woman of heart. One can’t help but think she would have thrived in a more domestic situation. Lever’s biography is unlikely to satisfy many academics, and the wider political and social context of events is all but absent, resulting in a somewhat misleading, half-formed version of events. The storming of Versailles especially reads more like a novel than an historical study, but the book is accessible and gives a sense of life as experienced by her. 

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