Reading Group Guide
Never before has the life of Marie Antoinette been told so intimately and with such authority as in Antonia Fraser’s newest work, Marie Antoinette: The Journey
. Famously known as the eighteenth-century French queen whose excesses have become legend, Marie Antoinette was blamed for instigating the French Revolution. But the story of her journey begun as a fourteen-year-old sent from Vienna to marry the future Louis XVI to her courageous defense before she was sent to the guillotine reveals a woman of greater complexity and character than we have previously understood. We stand beside Marie Antoinette and witness the drama of her life as she becomes a scapegoat of the Ancien Regime when her faults were minor in comparison to the punishments inflicted on her.
The youngest daughter, fifteenth out of sixteen children, of Austrian empress Maria Teresa and Francis I, Marie Antoinette was sent on a literal journey by her mother from Vienna to Versailles with the expectation that she would further Austrian interests at all times. Yet, Marie Antoinette was by nature far from interested in state affairs and much more inclined to exert a gracious, philanthropic role, patronizing the arts especially music, as royalty would come to behave in the nineteenth century. Despite this the French accused her of political interference and wrote scandalous tracts against her, mocking her lack of sophistication. Meanwhile, longing for a family and the birth of an heir who would have cemented the Franco-Austro alliance, the French queen had to endure more than eight years of public humiliation for her barren marriage before the delivery of her first of four children.
As these problems unfold, Antonia Fraser also weaves a richly detailed account of Marie Antoinette’s other, more poignant journey: from the ill-educated and unprepared girl who sought refuge in pleasure as a consolation into a magnificent, courageous woman who defied her enemies at her trial with consummate intelligence, arousing the admiration of even the most hostile revolutionaries.
Brilliantly written, Marie Antoinette
is a work of impeccable scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of family letters and other archival materials, Antonia Fraser successfully avoids the hagiography of some the French queen’s admirers and the misogyny of many of her critics. The result is an utterly riveting and intensely moving book by one of our finest biographers.
1. How important was Marie Antoinette's childhood in Austria -- hereditary enemy of France -- in influencing her career? Was it ever possible for an Austrian princess to have a satisfactory life in France?
2. Was Marie Antoinette's relationship with her mother the Empress Maria Teresa, conducted in copious correspondence 1770-1780 (when the Empress died), a damaging or a supportive element of her life?
3. Marie Antoinette's marriage to the Dauphin, later Louis XVI, was unconsummated for 7 1/2 years. What effects did this have on her character -- and her relationship wth her husband?
4. How far were contemporary (and subsequent) accusations of extravagance and frivolity against Marie Antoinette justified?
5. In Marie Antoinette's lifetime, she was the target of numerous vicious libels about her sexuality. Assess the part these libels played in blackening the image of royalty in France, and how justified they were.
6. Assess the political role of Marie Antoinette in the years shortly before the Revolution: Should she have tried to influence Louis XVI more or kept completely clear?
7. Marie Antoinette was a patron of the arts, especially music and opera, and an enthusiast for the environment, especially trees and flowers. Are these activities an essential part of the royal role?
8. Once the Revolution started, Marie Antoinette could probably have escaped by herself, or with her little son disguised as a girl. Instead she saw it as her duty to remain at the King's side. Was this the right decision for an unpopular queen to make?
9. Was Marie Antionette entitled to communicate with France's enemies in an attempt (unsuccessful as it turned out) to secure the safety of her family?
10. Marie Antoinette's courage at her trial and execution aroused widespread admiration at the time, even from her enemies. How far had her character changed since her youth or were such qualities always latent?