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Becoming Marie Antoinette: A Novel by Juliet…

Becoming Marie Antoinette: A Novel (2011)

by Juliet Grey

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Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first installment of the Marie Antoinette trilogy by Juliet Gray. This is a fun and educational read.

I previously knew very little about Marie Antoinette, only that she was the queen of France who was beheaded during the French Revolution and that she once said, of the starving masses, "Let them eat cake!" Now, I feel sympathetic toward her, having the weight of the world placed upon her young shoulders beginning at the tender age of 10, when it was first suggested that she should marry Louis XVI and cement the treaty between Austria and France. She was constantly reprimanded by her ambitious mother, who withheld the simplest demonstrations of affection or comfort, then at 14 sent to Versailles without the slightest hope of ever seeing her beloved Austria or family ever again.

Once married and living in the palace at Versailles, I admire the way our heroine strove diligently to follow the often ridiculous French etiquette and to live above reproach. It was also fun to read about the crazy behavior of the upper echelon and to hear about the unusual circumstances of Marie Antoinette's marriage with a husband so shy that he could barely touch her for years and how she learned to love him, offering patience and understanding, for all his shortcomings.

And, just for the record, Marie Antoinette never did say, "Let them eat cake!"

This novel ends as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI ascend the throne of France, and I am eagerly anticipating the next two books to learn how the rest of her story unfolds. ( )
  goode2shews | Nov 19, 2013 |
Didn't read, but gave to my dad. No clue if he liked it, but he likes French Revolution stuff. ( )
  kcarrigan | Aug 26, 2013 |
My Opinion: Everything I know about Marie Antoinette I learned in school during history class, which was more of an overview of her time as the last queen of France, mostly centering on the French Revolution, her execution, and of course, the famous phrase "let them eat cake." When I saw this book listed on NetGalley I was instantly curious to learn more about the girl Maria Antonia, in essence what events shaped her into the woman and queen she would one day become. I wasn't disappointed either! I found her story fascinating, starting out as a wide eyed innocent who was molded by a domineering mother into the most powerful woman in France. She grew up relatively sheltered as the youngest daughter (her mother had 16 children!) of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and was thrust into the high drama that was the court at Versailles at the tender age of 14. There was so much intrigue and so many rules of conduct and etiquette that she had to learn, as any misstep could lead to crushing humiliation and loss of social standing, which would have been disastrous as she was under the command of her mother to get close to the King of France, her husband's grandfather, Louis, to strengthen the political ties between France and Austria. Add to this, her inability to get her husband, Louis Auguste, to consummate her marriage so they could produce an heir, which was vital to the succession of the monarchy, not to mention her own personal well-being since the Catholic church back then considered being a barren royal as worse than adultery!

I felt that this book did a great job at balancing historical fact with a compelling fictional story. The facts lent credence to the story, which in turn gave it an authenticity that wouldn't have been there had it just been a fictional novel about a historical figure. I look forward to reading the next installment of this compelling trilogy because even though I know how it will eventually turn out, I look forward to continuing the journey and finding out where the author is going to take me next :D ( )
  jwitt33 | Mar 30, 2013 |
Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first of the author's planned trilogy about the woman baptized as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of Austria, but remembered and historically vilified as Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Chronicling her all-too-short years from adolescence to her ascension to the throne of France in 1774, a well-rounded, human version of the woman emerges from the pages of this easy-to-read historical fiction. The later books in the series (Days of Sorrow, Days of Splendor is the tentative title of book two) will focus more on the time Marie reigned alongside her doomed husband, Louis XVI.

While this novel can be historically uneven (the "nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen” stated on the back blurb is untrue because really, all she had to do was be born at the right time, to the right family; the author has her struggle to learn French but Marie Antoinette spoke French fine as Vienna was a multilingual city, however she had poor reading comprehension and writing skills) and take liberties with facts and dates, I more than enjoyed this look into a younger Marie Antoinette. Beginning when the petite archduchess is only ten, the novel chronicles several tense years as she tries to cement with marriage an alliance the Empress Maria Theresa desperately needs.

Thrust between two all-powerful monarchs (the aforementioned Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire and Louis XV of France) in a then-prevalent way of forging peace between warring European states, Marie has to please her mother and honor Austria all the while making France her country's ally. By trying to remain true to Austria all the while attempting to win the unfriendly French to her side shows the sheer impossibility of Marie's position in life. Amid impossible goals, treacherous relatives, scheming courtiers and her own impossible husband, it was remarkably easy for me to feel quite sympathetic for this character. Using this constant national game tug-of-war between the powers frequently creates a great deal of tension and pressure for the young girl for the entire novel. While she might be dauphine and first woman of France, Marie never is free or independent, nor truly, exuberantly happy. She attempts sex and/or affection many times with her husband, but he is painfully shy with her, almost a recluse. Marie, coming from a huge family of fifteen siblings and parents who married for love, is understandably upset by his lack of feeling and thus isolates herself from her one true ally for much of the novel.

I've not read many Marie Antoinette historical fictions, or even ones centering on the Gallic world. I tend to stay amongst the British and their Plantagenet, Lancaster/York, Tudors, Stuart families, etc. Winning this novel on goodreads.com has opened my eyes to a new, creative writer with a fresh take on this centuries old parable of overindulgence and moral decay. Happily, in this novel of hers, Ms. Grey does not immediately launch into the salacious and popular tales of the archduchess. By showing Marie at her most charming and vivacious in her young carefree years at home in Austria, a subtle foreshadowing of her tumultuous life in France is immediately brought to mind. I was very interested in her large, fractious Hapsburg family (fifteen siblings! Maria Theresa was a woman emperor -- in her own right! her parents were a love-match!) and thus the days at Shonbrun or the Hofburg, a palace that boasted a serving staff of 2,000 people alone!, were the most interesting for me. Another thing this novel does well is dispense interesting facts and tidbits without interrupting or displacing the flow of the plot or Marie's development.

Contrasting sharply with the long-held opinion of this Queen, Marie is shown to care for her Austrian subjects (and even her French ones when their own King does not!) as well as generally kind and loving nature. Hints of the troubles Marie will face later on in her noble are present as well; a certain disregard for consequences and rash actions/sayings is prevalent, though perhaps a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. Ms. Grey conveys the thoughts of the noblewoman better when she subtly alludes to Marie's less appealing traits. However, in the world of France, which was governed by the strict Salic law of its time, Marie does quite well in claiming what power she can and using it, all while doing what she can to influence her husband, to future king-to-be and thus a very strong potential ally for her family and home. The extreme disparity of life in the Hofburg, where the royal Hapsburg family was far more relaxed, dressing in far less formal clothing and even playing with 'common' children, the strict and rigid way of life in Bourbon Versailles is a constant reminder of just how out of place Marie feels for most of her teenage and early twenties in France. Constant reminders of how she does not fit in ("l'Autruchienne" being a clever if vulgar pun on the French words for ostrich [Austria] and for bitch) help to keep her off-balance and thus constantly caught between monarchs.

In the end, the novel boiled down to this single question for me: Is this a Marie Antoinette I liked enough to read about for three novels (and if the second two are as large as their 444 page predecessor) and 1350 pages only to have her die at the end? And that answer is a loud YES. While it is not perfect, it IS an enjoyable and new look into one of history's most maligned women. Grey's writing is original and clever enough with familiar material from historical class to make it less learning and more experiencing life as Marie navigates through her life with Louis -- what she has of it left. ( )
  msjessie | Feb 4, 2013 |
This book is exactly what it says on the tin: how Maria Antonia of Austria, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I, was molded into Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. It was an arduous process that began when she was ten years old; that was when the first overtures came from Louis of France proposing a match between his grandson the Dauphin and the appropriately aged daughter of the Austrian court. From that day Antonia's life took a swift turn from a rather carefree childhood into the increasingly difficult – and dangerous – realm of royal bride.

In the four years that passed between the first overture to the completed contract, Antonia had to learn to manage all of the finer points of a new court – from hair and makeup and new styles of clothing (including "less forgiving" corsets) to history and music, to a language she never cared to apply herself to, down to the unique manner of walking no great lady of Versailles would consider not practicing. Meanwhile she continued under the close scrutiny of two courts, waiting for her menses to begin and for her to develop a more womanly figure. Over her head cut-throat negotiations continued between her mother and her prospective husband's grandfather – these continued to the point that Antonia finally reached France. It seems as though it was only through the empress's extreme doggedness that the wedding ever happened at all.

The short version of the story is that being a princess was far from being all beautiful fabrics and rich food and stunning gardens. And Prince Charming was not to be expected.

The narrative is presented with, for the most part, Antonia's tight third person point of view, broken occasionally for things she could not know about by the insertion of letters and official documents. The language is young, maturing (slightly) as the book progresses and the narrator matures (slightly); the age of the voice is very well modulated.

Lately I've been expressing my concerns about writers using real people as characters in their fiction. (I seem to be one of the only people bothered by this, so this is mainly talking to myself, I suppose.) So why am I singularly untroubled by Becoming Marie Antoinette? I think it lies in three things: distance, author's motivation/respect for the subject, and the standing and condition of the person in question. Whether it's logical or not, time passage makes a difference to me: the 1770's are, or seem, much more distant even than the early 1800's; the farther back into history a book is set, the less it troubles me, whether because the longer ago it was the more a person becomes a figure of history or because family currently living is less likely to be hurt or something else I haven't determined yet. I do know that using someone who was living and breathing within my lifetime is highly offensive to me, while using, say, Chaucer, as Margaret Frazer does, is rather intriguing. To the second point, Becoming Marie Antoinette is a biographical novel, with an intent to both entertain and educate. (Both goals very nicely achieved, by the way.) From the author's notes, Juliet Gray developed a passionate fondness for Maria Antonia, and one of her missions is to try to combat the common image of the flighty and irresponsible queen. My impression of some of the works that use Jane Austen, the example who has been on my mind of late, has been far more along the lines of "Jane Austen is fashionable! I'll make her a detective and sell millions of books!" If nothing else, it's undignified, and lacks the respect Jane Austen is due. But it's standing, I think, that makes the biggest difference to me. It's in what I hypothesize the subject's outlook to be. Would she mind her avatar being co-opted, words being placed in her mouth that she never would have dreamed of saying and actions attributed to her that she never would have considered? Obviously, I have no deeper insight into the two women this paragraph is about than I have been able to gain from my unscholarly reading. But for Jane Austen, oh, yes, I have no doubt in the world that she would have more than minded. She was a private citizen. Private in terms of someone who had no public presence – her books were initially published anonymously – and also very much private in terms of having no desire for parading or being paraded in public. (I hesitate to refer to her as "Jane" in my reviews; it would have been such an intolerable presumption.) Marie Antoinette? I don't know. She was accustomed to her every move being scrutinized and discussed, used to everyone knowing who she was and what she said and did. My instinct – all I have to go on, really – is that she would have been charmed and flattered. And that makes a huge difference in my perception.

There is one more thing that comes into play here. Voice. Becoming Marie Antoinette is written as if Maria Antonia is telling the story. Some of the other books I referred to earlier, the Jane Austen Detective books, are supposedly recently discovered Austen memoirs. Presuming to write in Jane Austen's voice is … I saw the adjective "ambitious" used in a review, and that is certainly a kind word for it. I used "hazardous" once; we'll go with that to be nice. Here, though, the hazard does not exist. For one thing, there is little enough to compare to, especially for the layman; for another, there is a genuineness – and, yes, respect – for the subject which solidifies the whole.

Becoming Marie Antoinette an eye-opening book, obviously partisan, for a woman who needed partisans. It's the first of three following the princess-become-dauphine-become-queen through to the end, and I'll be interested in the rest of the story. ( )
  Stewartry | Jan 11, 2013 |
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Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube. Others wage wars; you, happy Austria, marry. -MOTTO OF THE HAPSBURG DYNASTY
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345523865, Paperback)

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.
Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

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.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels, Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.

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(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:57 -0400)

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 mothers political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon. 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.… (more)

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