BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey is a prime example of how well this art can both replenish our opinion of a famous personage while at the same time, reinforce the factual record. In this first installment of a trilogy, we meet a young and impetuous Maria Antonia – her given Hapsburg name – one of the brood which Empress Maria Teresa produced with tireless regularity during her astonishing 40-year reign. Unlike the coveted princess-brides of the Renaissance, however, these mid-eighteenth century Hapsburg daughters are woefully under-educated, pretty to look at, yes, but designed to be strictly ornamental, rather than functional, royal wives. Maria Antonia in particular dislikes studying and reading, and prefers to fritter away her time with her sisters chasing butterflies in the garden, though she’s designated to become the wife of none other than King Louis XV’s grandson, the Dauphin Louis Auguste.
One of the delights of reading this novel is meeting our vapid, bubble-headed legend head-on in her preteen years. She starts out in true cup-cake fashion; though not blond (Marie Antoinette was actually closer to strawberry-blonde, as the book points out) she is nevertheless almost everything we’d imagine she would be: undeniably charming and effervescent, quick to point out the frills of her latest gown and how she looks in it; and utterly clueless to the realities of the world around her. Raised in a crème-macaroon world of protective Imperial ostentation, our little Maria Antonia has no idea of the fate awaiting her; and it’s the literary equivalent of watching a slow-motion train wreck as we read of her excruciating Eliza Doolittle-makeover, reinforced by her steel-hearted mother and the ambassadors, all of whom work in concert to turn Hapsburg straw into Bourbon gold. Poor Mari Antonia suffers both physical and emotional humiliations before she’s shipped off to France to be plunged into the corrupt cauldron of stultifying protocol and vicious intrigue of the court of Versailles.
And it’s precisely here, when we least expect it, where the legend ends. Our Maria Antonia is now Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, and all her giddy optimism and adolescent fears are put abruptly to the test by the jaded splendors of Louis XV’s waning reign. Her husband refuses to consummate their marriage, though physically, he seems able; her father-in-law’s mistress is a jealous and competitive rival; her aunts-by-marriage are a trio of Macbethian spinsters, eager to exploit her; and the advice she receives from her advisers is contradictory, to say the least. Marie Antoinette finds herself the prey of a host of lavishly dressed predators and we cringe as we anticipate them making her their next meal. How she prevails; how she, in fact, ‘becomes Marie Antoinette’, constitutes the best part of this novel.
Ms Grey is a marvelous wordsmith and she doesn’t spare us the realities of life in Versailles, from the urine-drenched corners to the beggars sleeping in the hallways to the lavish excess of dinner parties and salons. A subtle air of rot emanates from just under the sheen of velvet; and we know, as we watch Marie Antoinette steer her way to fame, that she cannot escape it, no matter how valiantly she tries. Yet as she herself tells us her story in her breathy, witty, and often keenly observant voice, we find ourselves captivated by this young girl, unwittingly thrust into a role she must embody if she is to survive. Though very few of us are unaware of the terrors that await her, it is testament to Ms Grey’s skill that we actually forget as we root for Marie Antoinette’s success and finish the novel in eager anticipation of its impending sequel.