Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser's first book in five years, heralds the welcome return of her wonderfully lucid, engaging style as she disentangles myth from fact regarding the life of the still controversial, and misunderstood, wife of Louis XVI of France. It is also perhaps her most assured work to date. The daughter of Empress Maria Teresa of Austria, the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, or l'Autrichienne, was sent to France to marry the Dauphin in 1770 in an act of political union between the two countries. Despite her husband's preference for the hunting field over the bedroom, and a somewhat inexpressive personality--his final terse diary entry was to be, appropriately, "Rien"--a decade of French courtly exuberance entailed. Her disappointment in marriage gave way to an enjoyment of her position, especially on turning 30, yet an increasing number of libelles and scandalous rumours about the new Queen and her sexual proclivities grew from Versailles' whispers to the shouts of what was to be the revolution of 1789. This was followed by her own awful demise and beheading four wretched years later, after the appalling torture of her own young son falsely testifying that he had been sexually abused by her.
Those are the skeletal facts of her life, but Fraser fleshes out the story with her customary composed authority. Her stated ambition is twofold. The book's subtitle, "The Journey", refers to Marie Antoinette's political significance in a union over which she had no control, but also her own personal story, from the ill-educated, overwhelmed teenage bride to the despised monarch who bore the brunt of all the ills of the ancien régime. Fraser, arch debunker, necessarily removes the apocryphal--Mozart the child prodigy saying that he would marry her, the infamous "let them eat cake" comment that preceded her by several hundred years, dressing as a milkmaid at her model village in the grounds of Versailles--to reveal a woman whose misfortunes, she concludes, outweighed her failures. Like the Jemima Shore detective novels she also pens, Fraser displays an unerring ability to ask the right questions. Most of all, though, she writes with an understated, unadorned clarity that imparts her learning with an ease to be both envied and savoured. In 1789, Marie Antoinette famously said to a deputation from the Commune of Paris, "I've seen everything, known everything, and forgotten everything". There could be no wiser, compassionate and judicious reclaimer of her besmirched reputation than Antonia Fraser.--David Vincent