Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Marry Well!" The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette by Carolyn Meyer

Several ladies of the French court stepped forward, and, smiling grimly, proceeded to remove my grand habit. "The bride must retain nothing belonging to a foreign court," the countess explained as the ladies worked. I thought this was outrageous. But I dared not speak up.

I waited for them to bring the new grand habit to replace the one taken from me. But I was in for a shock. They had not yet finished undressing me. Piece by piece, every item I wore--panniers, stays, slippers, stockings, even my chemise--was removed and claimed by the ladies of the French court. Now I stood completely naked before a crowd of strangers.

Outside, the rain beat down and the wind whistled through the cracks in the pavilion. I shivered with an ugly mixture of fear, cold,
and utter humiliation.

It is an inauspicious but prophetic introduction for the fifteen-year-old Princess Antonia of Austria, as on an island in the Rhine between Germany and France she suffers through the ritualistic remise which serves to strip her of any trace of her origin before she is to be wed to the dauphin, Louis-Auguste, someday to become Louis XVI, King of France.

Antonia, now Marie-Antoinette, the future queen of France, arrives at Versailles, and despite years of diligent education and dire admonitions offered by her mother, Holy Roman Empress Maria-Theresa, she finds herself in a world for which no one could have prepared her--her royal husband a fat and unformed sixteen-year-old who has passion only for eating, hunting, and his hobby of metal working, and a court so rife with scandal, rumor, and political machinations that the young princess is overwhelmed even by its extreme rituals of etiquette in which her very attiring and retiring is daily attended by dozens of courtesans and in which she has no friend or advocate in whom to trust. Gradually, Marie-Antoinette wins the affection of the old king, Louis XV, and a warm friendship develops between her and her effete husband, who remains too reticent even to share a marriage bed with her.

It is years before the young dauphine, with the intervention of her older brother Emperor Leopold, persuades her husband to do his conjugal duty for the good of France, and during the interim before her pregnancies, Marie-Antoinette finds diversion only in ordering ever-more elaborate gowns, royal amusements, and accommodations at the Petite Trianon, her personal theatre, and a faux peasant village where she retires to escape the constant rules of etiquette at court. Outside the gilded palaces of Versailles and the Tuilleries, and her rounds of opera and grand balls in Paris, however, the public grows ever poorer and more resentful of the reckless extravagances of the royals, and the prophetic cold winds at the remise return to blow away the court, the monarchy, and with with it Marie-Antoinette herself. With her husband and three of her children dead and the last to be exiled to Russia, she faces death by guillotine as the "Widow Capet" in 1793.

In her forthcoming The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette (Young Royals) (Harcourt, 2010), author Carolyn Meyer takes us behind the familiar outlines of Marie-Antoinette's story, to her personal thoughts as confided only to her personal journal. Marie-Antoinette is a conflicting and conflicted heroine, at once a pawn in the scuffle for power between the crowned heads of Europe, virtually sold to the highest bidder by her own mother, and yet a willing participant in the excesses of the court which bring it to a bloody end in the Revolution. Marie is both refined and educated yet horribly ignorant of the real world in which she must live, a prisoner in a royal marriage to a gentle but ineffectual king who fiddles while Rome burns, tinkering with his handmade locks while his kingdom falls apart, assuring his own death and that of his hapless queen and crown with him.

Meyer, a noted historical fiction writer, author of the popular The Young Royals series, provides intricately detailed accounts of Marie-Antoinette's life at court--her gowns, her hairstyles, her residences, her flirtations and friendships, even her pets--which provide plenty of fodder for both history fans and the princess fanciers among young adult readers. While the details of daily life seems almost overwhelming at some points in the novel, her writing of the account of the final days of Marie-Antoinette is deeply moving, with its small, poignant details and its story of a woman who, at the last stripped bare, stood by her king and did her duty with dignity and grace, dying as a fascinating character who yet seems very much the pawn of history.

Meyer's other notable historical fiction works include Mary, Bloody Mary: A Young Royals Book, Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914 (The Royal Diaries), Beware, Princess Elizabeth: A Young Royals Book, and her dramatic Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker.

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