Friday, March 27, 2009

Book #20: 'Marie Antoinette' by Hilaire Belloc

This is the second paragraph in Hilaire Belloc's brilliant book, 'Marie Antoinette':

The Queen of France whose end is but an episode in the story of the Revolution stands apart in this: that while all around her were achieved the principal miracles of the human will, she alone suffered, by an unique exception, a fixed destiny against which the will seemed powerless. In person she was not considerable, in temperament not exalted; but her fate was enormous"

In a few sentences, the tone of the book is set. This isn't a sentimental, ponderous biography narrating the every day life of the last Queen of France--it's an intellectual, detailed study of the world that surrounded one of the most fascinating women in history. And it's an immensely engrossing read.

Written in 1909 by the historian Hilaire Belloc, 'Marie Antoinette' starts not with the birth of the Austrian princess, but with a quick summary of where Europe stood in the middle of the 18th century. It's a perfect introduction, because as he states repeatedly, there is no way to understand the life of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution without knowing exactly what the world around her was like. The rest of the book is told in much the same way. Belloc follows the life of Marie Antoinette not so much by trying to analyze her personality (we come to see that there's not much to explain there) but by detailing the world that she was thrown into at the age of 13, a world that was already boiling with potential disaster.

There has been a lot written about Marie Antoinette, and like any other prominent figure in history, the best known things about her are largely lies. Belloc aims not to defend her, but to put things right with nothing but facts and academic conclusions; he dismisses rumors and focuses on absolute truths. And the simple truth is that Marie Antoinette was born a princess of an immensely rich kingdom, uneducated and spoiled, who was married at 13 to a man she had never met, who came to unexpectedly inherit a kingdom that was falling apart at the seams. Ignorant and impulsive, she was a woman who never understood the country that had become her home. She was extravagant and spent millions on her entertainment, but in a world where the Monarchy and the aristocracy had almost unlimited power and resources, she would have gone largely unnoticed at any other point in history. But this was France in the 18th Century. The country was a mess, with massive debts after the wars of Louis XIV, potential conflicts on all its borders, a starving population and a crumbling economy. In such a climate, Marie Antoinette became the most visible (and therefore the most hated) symbol of a crumbling monarchy, and her every action became scandalous to the public. The revolution was coming, but she had no idea.

Belloc points out time and time again that Marie Antoinette never understood the people she was ruling, or what was happening around her. She was never educated in diplomacy or international affairs, simply because it wasn't important to a woman of her class. She was not supposed to understand the life of the poor, and so she could never understand why she was so hated by the French public. Her husband, Louis XVI, King of France, was a weak and indecisive man who indulged her every whim. And thus the two were completely helpless and confused when the Revolution exploded. Everything Marie Antoinette did, every ignorant or impulsive mistake she made was magnified by the public, and Belloc lets us understand exactly why she was doomed to her fate. By explaining complicated diplomatic allegiances, economic problems and the way France worked, Belloc lets us understand Marie Antoinette, the perception the public had of her, and the idea we have of her today.

This is a very dense, very academic book. Belloc is a historian writing for other historians, and sometimes the book gets quite challenging. He'll name a place or a person, say something like "but we all know how that ended, so I won't cover it here", and dismisses it. It's important to remember that 100 years ago, when this was written, the French Revolution was still very much a relevant event in the world, and so Belloc assumes that his readers will have an extensive knowledge of what to him is fairly recent history. It's very handy to have Wikipedia at hand, is what I'm saying. It doesn't really hinder the reading, but sometimes the book can get confusing and some background knowledge is helpful. It's definitely not a book for light readers, as it requires a lot of concentration and a good memory, and it is absolutely worth it.

I loved this book. It took me a long time to read it, but I would go through it again any time. I'm a history buff, and it's great to read a book that deals with every historical aspect surrounding a famous figure. I finally have a well-informed idea of Marie Antoinette and the french revolution, one that isn't biased or sentimental, just purely historical and objective. Marie Antoinette was a remarkable woman, but not through her own merit. Rather, she was made remarkable and memorable by the events and extraordinary circumstances in which he lived, most of which she had absolutely no control over. Hers is a fascinating story, and I am very glad that I understand it better now.

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