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Summer Reads - Marie Antoinette - by contributing Editor Gina Smith

If, like me, you like your summer beach reads  to be enthralling, romantic, mysterious, dangerous, sassy and exciting, well, what could be better than a little non-fiction? Huh?


I can eagerly recommend several biographies of Marie Antoinette for summer reading that you can’t put down, and the Vintage Indie tie-in will be all the glimpses you’ll get, both in illustrations and your imagination, of the beautiful period fashions, furniture and architecture.


    If you want to go especially light, The Private Realm of Marie Antoinette by Marie-France Boyer (Thames & Hudson, LTD, 1995, $19.95 soft cover) packs 123 mostly color illustrations and photos in its 111 pages.


Translated from French, the brief words in the book show some 200 years later some Francais still think Marie was not the saint and martyr many believe her to be. But as much as the styles of her time as well as her own image influence so much art, craft and collecting today, the book can be viewed as an important resource.


There are many actual pictures from Versailles as well as the Petit Trianon, the Hameau (hamlet), Fontainebleu and the Laiterie (dairy) and Rambouillet. Like me, you may be amazed to see a photo from an indoor bathroom of the late 1700s. Who knew?


There are many other photos of actual artifacts from the period, as well as ornate locks said to have been made by Louis XVI himself.


       For a strictly biographical, but very detailed read, I recommend Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette The Journey (Anchor Books, 2001, $16.95 soft cover). Fraser, a respected biographer and wife of playwright Harold Pinter, is known for her meticulous research. The 458pp are followed by 53 pp of notes.


Fraser’s version, upon which Sofia Coppola’s movie was based, is a much more practical version examined with the sympathetic eye of a modern woman. It is much more kind and at the same time more engaging than the translation from French of Evelyne Lever’s 2000 edition, Marie Antoinette, the Last Queen of France (St. Martin’s Griffin). I started with Lever’s version and found it shockingly harsh.


The Fraser book remains my favorite of all the ones reviewed here, and I found myself not only re-reading pages, but wishing that it would not end, and certainly that it would not end the way we all know that it does. You’ll have to pinch yourself to remember you are reading non-fiction, with all of the incredulous goings-on of the day, including public birthing of royals for one.


Following the Fraser book, I was so enthralled with the period, and realized I was so lacking in knowledge- my 11th grade US History teacher nor my college education did any justice to the concurrent period of the American and French revolutions. I decided to search the Internet for related books. You, too, can Google Marie Antoinette on Amazon or even Ebay and find any of the books mentioned here. I actually bought three of my five secondhand.


  My next adventure was Caroline Weber’s 292 pp Queen of Fashion (Henry Holt and Co., 2006, $16, soft cover). Call me a geek, but I even enjoyed looking through the 97 (yes, 97!) pages of notes and bibliography (scouting for more juicy reads).


Weber, an associate professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College, Columbia University, takes the position that Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices not only were a topic of the day during the French Revolution but also, in large part, played a central role in politics, religion and war.


One can tell Weber has written for Vogue and understands the fashionista’s point of view, and she is therefore well-qualified to discuss this pop culture phenom’s impact on the pop culture and fashion of her time. The book reads like a fashion show ‘Look Book’ and has detailed illustrations. There really aren’t any actual photos of original garments, except for one corset, because virtually nothing survived the Reign of Terror.



The Private Life of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan (1500 Books, LLC, 2006, $18.95 soft cover) is a translation of the 1823 account by Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting.


It would seem by fact of the author to be the most accurate, since it is written by an eye witness, but of course this author is most favorable to the Queen, and some of her positions are disputed by other writers. I found it to be very believable, not one bit syrup-y, and Campan specifically points out what she thought were some of the downfalls of the King and Queen. By the end of the book, you have to wonder how Mme. Campan, herself from a noble family, survived the thousands of executions of nobles and royals that were taking place.


One area that Campan never mentions is the purported liaison between Marie Antoinette and Swedish Count Axel Fersen. Fraser indicates quite blatantly that she both believes and hopes it to be true, for the Queen’s sake. It is amazing to me how many scholars, and even artists and bloggers are still debating this point more than 200 years after her death in 1793.



A delightful, yet fictional account can be found in The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette (St. Martin’s Press, 2005, $13.95 soft cover) by Carolly Erickson. Erickson is also the author of the non-fiction work To The Scaffold. The “diary” is described by Erickson as an “historical entertainment,” which I guess is the same as historical fiction, maybe with some happiness thrown in, which after reading these five volumes I sorely wanted to do myself.


I imagined Erickson also was so touched in researching this oft-misunderstood, misquoted figure that she wanted to write the story the way it could have gone, might have gone…up until the execution, that is. So be warned, beach readers, the same unfortunate outcome is still in the fictionalized account as well, but there are some juicy scenes with Count Axel that make for a titillating, yet still very believable read.


- Guest Author, Gina Smith

{All contributed content Gina Smith © Lilly*s of London*ish}

You can find these books for purchase in our Amazon Store under "Summer Reading"



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