Title: Becoming Marie Antoinette
Author: Juliet Grey
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.
Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.”
Thoughts: In Juliet Grey’s Becoming Marie Antoinette, it is easy for a reader to forget the tragic fate that awaits Marie and her husband. Under Ms. Grey’s skilled pen, she steps away from being the frivolous creature who worries more about the latest fashions than the people and becomes a person placed into an unfortunate set of circumstances, about which she had neither the education or support to make any changes. Meticulously researched, Marie Antoinette comes to life in this first in a trilogy about her life. The reader will never look at the French Revolution in the same way again.
The story starts out with Maria Antonia as the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg dynasty. Born among royalty, she has lead a sheltered and stable life, adored by servants, sisters, and governesses, and with access to more material wealth than most of her subjects will ever see in a lifetime. Her parents married for love, a rarity among royalty, and it is by this standard that Maria Antonia grades all other marriages, even as she knows full well that she will not be as lucky. For she has been raised knowing that her sole asset lies in her ability to unite the Hapsburgs to other royal families through marriage. Her worth is only as high as the marriage contract that can be written on her behalf. To know this at the age of ten is both disheartening and exceptionally pragmatic. Maria has no qualms about her duty and understands the political implications behind such arrangements. While she can still hope and dream like most normal little girls, she realizes that she will be lucky if only one or two of those dreams comes true. For her, happily ever after is as much a fairy tale ending as it is for the rest of her subjects.
The story showcases Maria Antonia’s transformation from gawky pre-teen to charming queen. Once the negotiations to become the future queen of France are underway, the Hapsburgs stop at nothing to prepare her for her future role, including elocution and diction training, a personal hairdresser, a bevy of tutors to get her up to speed on French history, and even 18th century braces. She succumbs to all of it quietly, as it is made more than clear that the fate of her family dynasty rides on this marriage. It is a rather heavy burden to allow someone so young to bear, but it was also the norm for 18th century royalty.
Through the extensive research provided by Ms. Grey, the reader gets a clear understanding of the changes required before Maria Antonia was considered acceptable enough to become Marie Antoinette. The reader also gets a detailed image of life in both royal Vienna and in Versailles during the waning years of Louis the Fifteenth’s life. If anyone considered the French court to be the epitome of royal life, the one is quickly disabused of that opinion within minutes of Marie Antoinette setting foot on the grounds of Versailles. Ms. Grey does not mince words at the more indelicate aspects of life near the royals, which only highlights the hypocrisy of some of the more eye-raising protocol young Marie faces as a new bride.
In Ms. Grey’s eyes, Marie Antoinette is as much a victim to her circumstances as is the poverty-stricken she tries so hard to help in any way possible. While the story ends just as Louis the Sixteenth becomes king, there is still hope that Marie and Louis will be the queen and king they hope to be -compassionate, understanding, and available to their subjects. There are hints, however, that neither is very politically savvy, and the ease with which they are both manipulated after their marriage is disturbing and saddening. In spite of it all though, Marie remains sympathetic in her fight to remain true to her family, while carving out her own place among the French royals. Being thrown into a veritable lions’ den at such a young age would be enough to undo most young women. Marie Antoinette more than survives the gauntlet; she overcomes and rises to the top. It will be interesting to see how much that becomes her undoing in the next two novels.