Monday, 24 September 2012

Stefan Zweig "Marie Antoinette"

Frederick the Great, the mortal enemy of Austria, lost his peace of mind, as Marie Antoinette, the daughter of his long-standing opponent, Maria Theresa, came to the French throne. Indeed, the danger was great for him. Marie Antoinette could have had all the threads of French diplomacy in her hands. “Now, thought Frederick the Great, Europe will be ruled by three women: Catherine the Great (Russian Empress), Maria Teresa (Austrian Empress and the mother of Marie Antoinette) and Marie Antoinette (French queen).” Interesting fact, is not it?

But Frederick need not have worried - Marie Antoinette did resemble neither her mother nor the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. Zweig says that Marie Antoinette became a real Queen when the crown was removed.

For me, Marie Antoinette is more a true embodiment of the First Lady. Epithets Zweig gives a propos her elegance and tastes are endless. Portraits, unfortunately, do not convey her lightness, grace and ease of movement. She was a real "fireworks of a woman’s triumph" (the epithet is not mine, read it somewhere)

However, Zweig sadly notes that for all her potential talents, she did not go beyond the level of an ordinary person. Oh, had her husband be more energetic and decisive...

She shrugs off the burden of the government as a nuisance. She may be called an ordinary person, as well as a very bad ruler, but you cannot call her an ordinary woman. She was a mega star; French court has not seen such a desire to emulate the Queen of Rokoko. Charm and elegance are still a large share in the goodwill of France, and Marie Antoinette left in it a considerable share.

Zweig says she had to do few things to avoid the destiny. For example, she should have not closed herself in the Trianon from the old aristocracy, which later, embittered by her indifference, maintained and distributed pamphlets. I would not be unjust to say that the bomb that exploded in France at Marie Antoinette's time was laid by Louis XIV who started all this fuss with Versailles. Heavy, expensive protocols and traditions of the French court just had to die away. Remember that was the time of Voltaire.

To write interestingly about real people’s life is difficult, but Zweig did it. I watched Sofia Coppola's film about Marie Antoinette, and I can say that the film embodies, well, maybe twenty percent of the book (I would rather call the movie “the illustrations to the book”, because the movie characters are too two-dimensional). The book is richer, and so many details and important episodes are missing: the attitude of the mother to Marie Antoinette, the fatal influence of the sexual failure of Louis XVI on the spiritual development of Marie Antoinette, release of "The Marriage of Figaro" (I did not know all the underpinnings of this opera), scandalous and shocking scam with the necklace, and even her wedding is full of details that are not in the movie.

Zweig reiterates that Marie Antoinette was not able to rise beyond the level of an ordinary person. That is why we, "ordinary persons" are attracted by her story. We find ourselves in Marie Antoinette rather than in her mother, wise and religious ruler. Her story causes a pile of contradictory feelings: admiration, irritation and familiarity. How many times oblivious, just like Marie Antoinette, we were inactive and waited carelessly for our blows of fate?

The book is beautifully written and if you have not read Zweig before, I would advise you to start with this book.


  1. Have you read Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund? It is an excellent retelling of Marie Antoinetter's life. I am going to order the book this post is on...she is one of my favorite historical characters, such a fascinating woman.

  2. Hello Davida,

    No I have not read Sena Jeter Naslund, but I definitely will. Curious to read another opinion. I do like Marie Antoinette very much, if you noticed I used Marie Antoinette's motives in the design of my blog:)