Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The last queen of France

I have not yet made time to watch Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. But early this summer, I finished three books in a row about the much-maligned queen and her family.

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky is part of the Royal Diaries series for young readers. The novel provided a good introduction to the tragic queen's life.

Maria Antonia's diary begins just before she must journey from Vienna to marry France's dauphin. She leaves everything Austrian behind -- her clothes, jewels, even her name -- only to find her dream prince is an awkward, unattractive youth. Then she must navigate the rigid, often ridiculous etiquette of the court of Versailles.

Kathryn Lasky presents a credible portrait of Marie Antoinette as a girl struggling to hold onto her own, unique identity in a world of royal duty. I only wished the book had shown more of Antoinette's inner feelings as she left her native Austria forever to become a French princess. I am always fascinated by what princesses went through in leaving their homes and countries forever to marry strangers in foreign lands.

My grade: B

Flaunting, Extravagant Queen is the kind of book that makes me wish history could be changed. Jean Plaidy made me care about the doomed Marie Antoinette and her family. Their story is truly stranger than fiction, and Plaidy wrung every ounce of drama from it, leaving me breathlessly turning pages even though I knew Antoinette would end up sans tete.

Plaidy portrayed the last queen of France as a multifaceted, very human woman: good-hearted, fun-loving, dignified and courageous, yet temperamentally incapable of submitting to the rigid etiquette of Versailles. She also brought to life the glittering French court, the disaffected people of Paris and the terrifying days of bloody revolution. While reading the novel, I felt like an eyewitness to the events of Antoinette's life, right up to her last ride to the guillotine. My grade: A

Plaidy, who also wrote as Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr and others, was luckily quite prolific, and I have many other books of hers waiting on Mount TBR. Incredibly, her books span 835 years of English and European history, from the Norman conquest of 1066 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury was the best of these three books, although it was horrifying and heartbreaking to read. It focused on Louis-Charles, second son of Marie Antoinette who became heir to the French throne when his older brother died. Within 5 years, he had lost his parents and became the focus of a nation's hatred and abuse. In 1795, revolutionary leaders declared the boy was dead.

Or was he? Rumors sprang up persistently he had escaped, and in later years, several pretenders claimed to be the rightful kings of France.

Cadbury vividly describes the monarchical missteps that led to the French revolution, the royal family's tense days of captivity, the execution of king and queen and the nearly unbearable sufferings of the son they left behind. She ably guides the reader through the years following the dauphin's supposed death, portraying the various pretenders and the many historians and scientists who struggled to solve the mystery. Finally, she presents the results of recent DNA testing on a shriveled heart, believed to have come from the dauphin's body.

I recommend this riveting book to all history buffs. It inspired me to seek out more information on the French Revolution and the royal family -- more for the TBR pile!

My grade: A+


Mimi said...

I have to admit, I think the Princess Diaries are well written, just a snippit of the life, but well done.

The only Marie Antoinette book I've read has been the one by Antonia Fraser, but I enjoyed it. These look good, thanks.

Felicia J. said...

Fraser's book is on my Mount TBR (naturally!)

The only other Royal Diary I've read thus far was the one about Queen Victoria as a princess. I didn't like it; it was poorly written and gave me little sense of what Victoria was like as a girl.

On another Web site, I saw some advice to a mother to keep her daughter from developing a "spoiled princess" attitude. Have her read the Royal Diaries, and she'll see how hard a REAL princess's life could be!

Mimi said...

Ok, well I've only read the Eleanor of Aquitaine one, and leafed through the Elizabeth I one, so I guess I've not read the entire series. I'll avoid the Victoria one!

And, so true about avoiding spoiled kids!

Dewey said...

This post is a great find for me, because I've always been fascinated by MA but there is such a sea of fiction and nonfiction to choose from. This narrows things down!