Book cover
Marie Antoinette
The Journey
Antonia Fraser

I decided to read this because it is the basis of one of my favorite films, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. And because the cover is gorgeous. But it is also a very timely read. Maria Antoinette is in some sense the ultimate symbol of eat-the-rich, and understandably so. At the same time, but perhaps less understood, she’s an emblem of our still-pervasive cultural hatred of women. This is the Marie Antoinette explored by Coppola in her film. I could try to explain it in my cumbersome way, but I don’t have to because Roger Ebert captured it perfectly in his review:

Every criticism I have read of this film would alter its fragile magic and reduce its romantic and tragic poignancy to the level of an instructional film. This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you. Roger Ebert on Marie Antoinette

I can see why Coppola was inspired by this book. It shows a side of Antoinette that is entirely missing from popular conception. And it all feels so current:

As Marie Antoinette wrote with truth to Yolande de Polignac, she did not fear poison: “That does not belong to this century, it’s calumny which they use, a much surer means of killing your unhappy friend.”

None of this is to say that the revolutionary spirit of 1790s France was bad, although it was indisputably flawed. I empathize with the ethical complexity of such a transformation, and of the centuries of suffering that had, in some way, to be expunged. It was not an easy transition. Perhaps Marie Antoinette the symbol had to give up her head, even if Marie Antoinette the woman didn’t particulary deserve it. This well-written, well-researched book makes it possible to take both positions and feel justified.

Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine.