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No, she wasn't faithful, but the reasons for that were understandable, and human.

Book Review: Marie Antoinette – The Last Queen of France by Evelyne Lever

There are few subjects that divide historians as much as Marie Antoinette – who probably, incidentally, never actually said "let them eat cake". Those of the anti-monarchical, pro-Revolutionary, or just plain misogynist school, are convinced that she was a nymphomaniac, traitorous bad mother with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Those of the royalist school by contrast, along with the odd feminist who's tired of reading the same slurs again and again about powerful women, tend to defend her as purer than the driven snow, well-meaning, if, they have to admit, a little out of touch with the realities of France.

Evelyne Lever, a prominent French historian, with the benefit of some papers and facts only relatively recently available, has trawled through the archives, reasonably weighed the facts (it seems – she has fewer obvious angles than most writers I've read on this subject), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, come down somewhere in the middle. No, Marie Antoinette almost certainly wasn't faithful to the king (although this will probably never be proved with complete certainty); no, she never sacrificed the interests of her native Austria to the land into which she'd (so unhappily) married into; no, she never developed any realistic political sense. But there were entirely understandable, if not defensible, reasons for all of those failings.

First, Antonia, as she was known in her birth family, was not properly brought up for the royal duties she was almost certain to perform. Her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, might have been an early "Superwoman", almost singlehandedly running an empire while giving birth to a dozen children and seeing nine (exceptional for the time) growing into adulthood, and she might have ensured her daughter learnt courtly manners, but she didn't see to her education in politics, ethics or simply how to get along with people when more than a winning smile was needed.

When the 14-year-old bride arrived at the political bearpit of Versailles, and met her strange, slow-witted and socially paralysed husband, she had none of the tools she needed to manage. That she was frivolous, spendthrift, unwise in her choice of friends was Maria Antoinette's fault, but even had she been a more sober character, this would have been a tough challenge.

Second, there's no doubt she was intellectually limited – but she was continually given what was, for her own interests, bad advice. Her mother and brothers and sisters, and their advisers – who Maria Antoinette was carefully not told were acting for her mother – kept advising, even bullying, her to advance the interests of Austria – even when their goals were clearly achievable within the realpolitik of Europe.

Third, she was almost certainly unfaithful with the handsome Swedish solider Count Axel Fersen (although probably not, Lever concludes, with other men with whom she flirted – and as for the claims of lesbian affairs, there appears to be no evidence of that at all). Lever has looked closely at his papers – and at the details of the way various palace chambers were remodelled. But although for a Queen this was certainly a very serious business, it isn't hard to see how, with her sexually dysfunctional and difficult husband, she might feel badly in need of comfort. Thanks to the report of her blunt but perceptive brother, the Emperor Joseph, Lever is able to report exactly what was wrong with their sexual relationship – in terms that even a modern newspaper agony aunt might find to be a bit too much information.

You can't accuse Lever of holding back, and she's ensured that this account is as entertaining and readable as you might expect of one of the great tragic tales of French history. No doubt those seeking academic tomes will look in other directions, but general readers seeking a balanced historical account, in a solid framework, which will help them understand the woman and her time, should find this entirely satisfactory.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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