Marie Antoinette Rises from the Dead 

Thursday, July 27, 2006

This book club thing has turned me into the bookworm I've always wanted to be: I've read four books already - only two as part of the collective reading choices - and I've got more waiting in line.

The book club has had other consequences.

As a result of Evelyne Lever's Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, I became curious about the Madame du Barry and, after reading her biography, Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip, I was won over to her camp, becoming someone that in her day would have been called a barryste.

Then, sad and confused over Marie Antoinette's death in the Lever biography, I picked up Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey. What a difference! Whereas Lever's Antoinette was repeatedly a "charming featherbrain," Fraser's Antoinette was a poor little rich girl. I should have known from the covers: Lever's book features a close-up of Antoinette's face at the height of her glamour before her children domesticated her, Fraser's the group portrait of the mature Antoinette with her children. I suspect the difference is that Lever, a Frenchwoman, is a child of the French Revolution, who grew up with textbooks condemning the ancien regime and Fraser is a British aristocrat who learned to appreciate the benefits of a monarchy.

Alas, this second Marie Antoinette biography ends the same way. No matter how much Antonia Fraser explained away the queen's deficiencies, she still died at the end of the book.

So next I picked up Olivier Blanc's Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution. Afterwards I have Madame du Pompadour's biography - also by Evelyne Lever- and the sole Louis XVI biography, which promises to show that the poor Louis was actually the most conscientious, most sensitive and most christian of the French kings. Once I get through those, I hope I have enough energy to throw in biographies of five other Louis (XIV, XV, XVII, XVIII and Philippe), as well as Charles X and, if I am really ambitious, Napoleon. Plus I have the Vigée-Lebrun and Madame Tussaud biographies and a book on the festivals of the French Revolution.

The final consequence of this Marie Antoinette craze is that I've remembered how much I love Paris. This is the tenth year anniversary since my last trip there. To celebrate, I dug out the memorabilia from my first trip to Paris. Perusing the maps and ticket stubs, I began making lists of places I would visit on my next trip, with itineraries for a revolutionary prison tour, a Eugène Delacroix tour and a tour of the palaces of Marie Antoinette. In a sudden fit, my Marie Antoinette inebriation made me subscribe to a bunch of Parisian blogs, as if that would cure me.

Luckily, it's a good time for this particular obsession:
The Louvre Museum is promoting the sale of dozens of Marie-Antoinette- related items at its museum store, including a $160 children's costume modeled on a portrait of Marie-Antoinette at the age of seven.

The Paris confectioner Ladurée, whose towers of colorful macaroons grace the film, is paying "homage" to the queen with a Marie-Antoinette "collection," including a white- and milk- chocolate cake imprinted with her carriage.

The perfumer Francis Kurkdjian consulted 18th-century accounts of Marie-Antoinette's taste in concentrated scents in creating a perfume in her honor. Baccarat has produced it as a limited edition of 10 ($10,000 each) as well as a $450 version in a less expensive crystal.

The fashion designer John Galliano made Marie-Antoinette his muse in his haute couture show in Paris early this year. Lalique has made crystal earrings and a pendant inspired by one of her portraits.

The Raynaud porcelain house is selling copies of her royal dishes, the knife maker Couteaux de Sauveterre a $280 limited edition jackknife engraved with the initials "MA."

Marie-Antoinette was said to be a picky eater, but at the one-star Les Trois Marches restaurant in Versailles, chef Gérard Vié has created a $127, five- course "Marie-Antoinette menu" featuring adaptations of favorite 18th-century royal dishes: stuffed sweetbreads with mushrooms, slowly boiled beef and Saint-Pierre fish with spinach and herb sauce.
(From the International Herald Tribune, via Shortcut)

Way more universal than my zombie obsession.

My partner loves Marie Antoinette. Everytime there's a new biography and I bring it home from the library, he determines if it's pro- or anti-Marie. The anti-Marie books make him mad because they fall into the trap of 200-year-old court gossip and revolutionary propaganda. Poor Marie, she suffered from negative word of mouth her whole life and beyond. It makes me think that it matters to posterity more how we are remembered than who we actually were.
Oh, cool! Someone who likes the Antoinette! I don't think I could have been friends with her prior to Ocotber 6, 1789, but afterwards, well, I pitied her tremendously.

I still haven't decided if she really deserved the death penalty, despite some "treasonous" letters giving away military positions. It's hard to make that decision, since she and hers represented the legitimate government, not the upstarts.

Plus, the fact that the revolutionary riff-raff was so incredibly violent was a factor, that the revolutionaries never took into account the basic human need for survival and that people might do anything to keep alive.

The current book I'm reading, Last Letters, is very pro-Revolution, to the point where the author sides with the Revolutionary Tribunal even though the crimes are what would be white collar crimes in our day and yet the punishments were invariably the death penalty.
Zombies!!! I saw two funny zombie movies recently, "Dead and Breakfast" and "Zombie Honeymoon." It appears that filmmakers really are trying to take the genre into all kinds of strange places it hasn't been before (i.e., comedy -- well ok that's been done -- but for the latter, romantic comedy! LOL).

I don't know much about Marie Antoinette but I can definitely imagine it's much more complicated than we could imagine. History is funny that way.
Thanks for the movie tips, Litblitz! I am looking up the two movies as I write.
I am reading Marie Antoinette's correspondance presenteded by Evelyne Lever and I recommanded it to you all that are interested in her and her life. You get a real idea of the pressure that was on her from the very start she came to France (at 14) to get married to the dauphin. The letters of her mother, Marie Therese and her ambassador Mercy, are published here too. I don't know if it has been translated to english yet.


Have you seen her head at Mme Tusseaud? Is this story true?


Exhibit from Madame Tussaud's in London of the guillotined head of Louis XVI (left). Marie Tussaud, apprentice and "niece" of Dr. Phillipe Curtius, sometime doctor turned wax modeler and showman, would follow the executioners wagon to the Madeleine Cemetery and there make death masks of the freshly severed heads that had been dumped into common graves. After locating the heads of those worthy of such posterity, it was necessary to first smooth out the features then oil them before applying plaster, all in the darkness of the grave pit.
IMAGE (left to right): Hebert, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Carrier, Robespierre
Thank you for the tip, Anonymous. Will look into that book, sometime in the far future after I complete my current stack.

As for Madame Tussaud, I have finished that book and yes, she did get Marie Antoinette's head and the wax head survived.
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