Bag Girl Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

51y6tOhK6jL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

A book that I’ve been meaning to read for years is Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, the biography which was the inspiration for the Sofia Coppola film I adore. I bought the kindle edition of the book years ago but never finished it.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey tracks the development of  its subject from a both indulged and neglected archduchess in Austria to a lonely and unfulfilled dauphine in France, to a despised queen, and then a heartbroken widow awaiting execution. The story of the last queen of France is one of a young woman, a flighty and badly educated fourteen year old who, by accident of fate, was sent to do a job she was not suited for and did not want, that of a quasi ambassador who would support Austrian interest in France. The same could be said of her husband. The awkward and introverted but good natured Louis XVI was unsuited to the cutthroat world of French court politics and too indecisive to be able to weather the coming socio-political storm. Antonia Fraser paints the ill fated royal couple as tragic and sympathetic. Despite being vilified in her own lifetime as a greedy, extravagant, and manipulative intriger and adulteress, Marie Antoinette would have been better suited to a simple and cosy domestic life.

As a figure of glamour, luxury, and indulgence, as well as tragedy, Marie Antoinette continues to captivate us today. I think the reason I feel such a connection with her is because we share a number of personality flaws with her: extravagance, capriciousness, ennui, and a tendency to compensate for our frustration and unhappiness with excessive self indulgence. If I was in Marie Antoinette’s position, in an unhappy marriage and constantly under the scrutiny of a hostile court, and had her unlimited access to the best of French fashion and culture, I would probably go a bit overboard as well. 

I found reading this book highly enjoyable. It is very well written and paints a vivid picture of Marie Antoinette and her life at the dazzling but vicious court of Versailles and how she incurred the wrath of the increasingly resentful French population, who would later rise up and destroy her and her family, try as did to prevent this disaster. Fraser’s prose held me from the beginning and the read did not feel like a chore to get through, as it sometimes does with non fiction.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Marie Antoinette and the time period she lived through, and in French history in general, and anyone who is a fan of the Sofia Coppola film. 

Advertisements

Bag Girl Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky

IMG_6449

Due to my interest in history and childhood obsession with princesses, one of my favorite series of books growing up was The Royal Diaries. I scoured my elementary school and middle school libraries for every book in the series I could get my hands on and checked them out over and over again. The one that I checked out the most was Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky. My first reading of the book probably predates my first viewing of the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, but my subsequent Marie Antoinette obsession lead me cracking it open many more times. The book and I encountered each other again after many years last fall at Wicked Good Books in Salem and I just had to finally own a copy of it for myself.

As a fictionalized diary, it follows Archduchess Maria Antonia (later Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France) as she prepares to marry Louis Auguste, heir to the French throne. The free-spirited and somewhat scatterbrained teenager chafes under the high expectations of her formidable mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and the rigid etiquette she is supposed to follow as future queen of France, and enjoys more simple pleasures such as sledding trips and moon-lit wadding in the palace fountains. Upon her arrival at the glittering but cut-throat court of Versailles, she finds that her future husband, Louis Auguste, is not the fairytale prince she had hope for but soon develops a deep fondness for the awkward young man. The young and inexperienced dauphine quickly sparks a rivalry with Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s greedy and arrogant mistress and struggles to find her footing at court. 

Being a book intended for children, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles glosses over the sexual failings which marred the first seven years of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis Auguste (later Louis XVI). Due to Louis’s awkwardness and lack of knowledge about reproduction, the royal couple failed to consummate their marriage for a number of years. The sexual debauchery for which Versailles was notorious for and the obscene mockery which was heaped on Marie Antoinette for most of her sojourn in France, are also left unmentioned. 

I have to admit that I’ve grown beyond books like this, them being written for kids. The language and plot are simple, almost juvenile and has little to offer an adult reader aside from nostalgia. But I would recommend it to little girls who, like me, had a taste for history, pretty dresses, and royal pomp and splendor. 

 

Bag Girl Reviews: My Cousin Rachel (2017) ****Warning: Spoilers***

My_Cousin_Rachel_(2017_film)

A couple of years ago, my Aunt Suzie bought me a copy of  the book My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier she had found at a flea market, mostly because it had the name Rachel in the title (Rachel happens to be my name). It was a happy accident that Daphne du Maurier is the author of one of my favorite books, the superb romantic thriller Rebecca. I read My Cousin Rachel later that summer during a trip and enjoyed it, and read another of du Maurier’s books, Jamaica Inn, the following year. Of the three books by Daphne du Maurier that I have read, Rebecca is my favorite, My Cousin Rachel comes in second, and Jamaica Inn makes up the rear. Despite an interesting premise, an unlikeable heroine and a plot twist that is either amazing or shark-jumping depending on your tastes make Jamaica Inn less enjoyable than I was expecting. I was excited to hear about a film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel coming to theaters this summer and when it started getting good reviews, I was anxious to see it.

The orphaned Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has been raised by his cousin Ambrose, the quintessential english confirmed bachelor, to see women as disruptive interlopers. When ill health brings Ambrose to Italy, Philip is shocked to learn that his woman distaining cousin has suddenly gotten married to the mysterious and enchanting Rachel (Rachel Weisz). After a series of startling letters and Ambrose’s sudden death of a brain tumor, Philip begins to suspect Rachel of foul play. But when he finally meets the woman herself, Philip falls under her spell. Desire turns to suspicion and paranoia when more details about Rachel’s past come to light and Philip begins to fall ill in the same way that Ambrose had. 

My Cousin Rachel is a master class in ambiguity. Each reveal in the plot poses more questions than they answer, leading to a fascinating story. The main conflict, Rachel’s guilt or innocence, allows the reader or viewer to come up with a large number of possibilities. Did Rachel poison Ambrose using her special tisane to get as his fortune and is doing the same to Philip, or did Ambrose become unhinged due his brain tumor. Rachel could have simply been giving Ambrose medicine to ease his suffering and if she did poison him, maybe it was to spare him from a longer and more painful death. The film leans towards the Rachel was giving him medicine or trying to put him out of his misery theory. At a number of points in the story, Rachel mentions to Philip that his increasingly hostile treatment of her is almost identical to Ambrose’s behavior prior to his death. The ending gives the impression that Philip has the symptoms of a brain tumor, similar to the one Ambrose died from. 

Rachel Weisz was a brilliant choice to play the dramatic and elegant Rachel, and contrasts well with the earthy, tomboyish Louise (Holliday Grainger), Philip’s other love interest. I think Holliday Grainger is better suited to wholesome girl-next-door roles rather than devious femme fatale parts, so she was a good fit for Louise. A nitpick I had was that in one scene, Louise describes the shabby state of Philip’s manor house as smelling like “every dog in the county has taken a shit here.”  I have a hard time believing that Louise would have used a word as crude as “shit” but I gave it a bit of leeway because she was shown as being somewhat tomboyish and treated as “one of the boys” by Philip.  I am definitely “Team Louise” because I tend to sympathize more with the less favored romantic option who stands little chance against their more dazzling rival, so I was pleased by the addition at the end where after Rachel’s accidental death, Philip marries Louise and has a family with her. 

One problem I had with the film was that it was a little confused as to which time period it was set. The costumes worn by Rachel and Louise were in the fashion of the 1840s while the rest of the women shown on screen were dressed for the 1830s. Other than that, I loved the clothing worn by the two female leads, Rachel’s striking blacks, reds, and blues and Louise’s more natural browns and pastel florals. The film is visually beautiful with its shots of the stunning Cornish landscape and shadowy, candlelit manor houses.

I would recommend My Cousin Rachel, both the film and book, to those who love a good mystery and periods costume dramas with an edge.