The Journey

By Antonia Fraser

Doubleday. 512 pp. $35

"Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel." These were the parting words of the formidable Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, as she sent her 14-year old daughter off to France to wed the dauphin -- the heir to the French throne.

Thus began Marie Antoinette's journey in 1770, as she said goodbye forever to her parents and her ancestral home. This innocent adolescent -- the 15th of Maria Theresa's 16 children and ill-prepared to become a queen -- was but a pawn in the never-ending duel of Austro-French foreign policy. And even as she departed, her magnificent procession (57 coaches, 376 horses, 132 dignitaries, plus assorted doctors, hairdressers, cooks, bakers, blacksmiths and a dressmaker) was designed primarily to attest to the grandeur of the Austrian state.

Alas, we all know how her journey ends -- at the guillotine at age 38, a victim of the extremists of the French Revolution. But Antonia Fraser's absorbing new biography reveals how much we did not know. Fraser, an accomplished biographer of such earlier English luminaries as Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell, has produced a book to be savored, beautifully written and thoroughly researched. Above all, she provides a well-rounded picture with sensitive and fresh insights into the life and times of this unhappy queen.

Christened Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna, the future queen was sent to France by default; she was the seventh archduchess, and her older sisters had already been designated as brides for various European rulers. But death and disease took their toll, and suddenly Marie Antoinette was the one fated to become the dauphine.

Petite and pretty with her dazzling complexion and blue-gray eyes, Marie Antoinette had a pleasing personality, but she was not considered particularly intelligent or accomplished. Nonetheless the French joyously celebrated her marriage to their dauphin, who was fat, awkward, slow-witted and unable to consummate their marriage until seven years after the wedding. Once he got the hang of it, however, he managed to father four children, but the incorrigible gossips and yellow press of the time then floated rumors casting doubt on their parentage.

When Louis XV died in 1774, the dauphin became King Louis XVI, with Antoinette as his teenage queen, both blithely unaware of the coming Go{dier}tterda{dier}mmerung for the absolute monarchy and the upheaval of the French Revolution that was to change the political landscape of the world forever.

Their story has been told so often that one wonders what more can be said. But in the hands of Fraser, a vivid writer with a flair for fascinating detail, the court at Versailles comes alive with all its protocol and intrigues. She gives us marvelous vignettes of rituals such as the Queen's toilette and the King's "morning dressing (lever)," which could take hours and were as intricately choreographed as a three-act ballet. Describing the routine of the toilette, Fraser writes, "Marie Antoinette could reach for nothing herself; the handing over of a garment . . . for her to put on was a jealously guarded privilege." Powdering of the hair was de rigueur -- one could not come to court without it -- as was the lavish application of rouge to the cheeks -- "not delicate shading, but huge precise circles of a colour not far from scarlet." (This explains those strange circles of red in the portraits of the period.)

The household of the queen of France traditionally consisted of about 500 people, all of whom "watched each other perpetually to see that no extra advantage was being taken, no privilege neglected," Fraser writes. "The Queen's trainbearer, to take one example, had to be of noble birth; otherwise the First Gentleman Usher, who had to provide a place for him in his coach, could not tolerate the association. The trainbearer also had to surrender the train to a page when the Queen entered the chapel of the private apartments of the King, although he was entitled to carry it in the State Apartments and the Gallery of Mirrors. He was also in charge of her cloak, although he had to hand it to an usher or equerry if she actually wanted to put it on."

Filling these positions gave the queen considerable patronage, and later events gave her cause to regret many of her choices. However, Marie Antoinette was generous and loyal to her household, which Fraser describes as a "honeycomb of privilege and payment."

But this constant togetherness -- even to the point of giving birth to her children under the watchful eye of a large number of courtiers -- explains why she longed for the simplicity of the Petit Trianon, which she had built as a refuge and chance to live a more simple and bucolic life reminiscent of her childhood in Austria. This expensive venture caused much criticism, however. Her decision to acquire the Palace of Saint Cloud as her personal property brought on an even greater storm of protest.

Neither the etiquette nor the lavish expenditures and excesses of the Versailles court were created by Marie Antoinette, and within the context of the times she does not come across in this book as being particularly venal, although she did enjoy gambling and horse racing. Her greatest ambition was to be a patron of the arts, and she did indeed lavish attention on musicians such as Christoph Willibald von Gluck and on the ballet and theater. But she was vilified for what were judged to be frivolous and extravagant pursuits.

In a court famous for its licentiousness, Marie Antoinette seems to have been remarkably chaste and even a prude about sex. For a long time she refused to acknowledge the Comtesse Du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. Her own husband, who was quite pious, never took a mistress and seemed not very interested in sex -- his primary diversions were hunting and drinking. Fraser finds evidence of only one possible lover in her life, a handsome Swede, Count Fersen, a lifelong friend. In the lurid underground and foreign press of the time, however, she was accused of lesbianism and every sort of sexual misdeed. They compared her to other "notoriously evil or lascivious women in history," Fraser writes. "She was worse than Cleopatra, prouder then Agrippina, more lubricious than Messalina, more cruel than Catherine de' Medici . . . This was the vicious misogynistical chant that would continue to Marie Antoinette's death and beyond it."

Early on, the author takes up the "Let them eat cake" canard, which she feels sure never happened. Apparently this saying was first ascribed a hundred years earlier to the Spanish wife of Louis XIV and to a series of other princesses throughout the 18th century. Not only did Marie Antoinette not make the infamous statement, but as Fraser points out, it was totally out of character. "The unfashionably philanthropic Marie Antoinette would have been far more likely to bestow her own cake (or brioche) impulsively upon the starving people before her." Truth, of course, was irrelevant, for Marie Antoinette was doomed to be the scapegoat for all the ills of France.

Without doubt, however, is her deep love for her children, which makes the last years of her life so heartbreaking. Her firstborn son died at 7. She had already lost a daughter in infancy, and the remaining son and daughter were her primary concern. After the fall of the Bastille, the queen was urged to flee and take the two children with her. But she steadfastly refused to abandon the king, whose weak and vacillating character made it impossible for him to take any decisive action. Hence the drama moved inexorably toward its tragic finale.

Fraser recreates the last years of the king and queen in great detail. Especially moving is her description of Marie Antoinette as she suffered captivity, was degraded by every humiliation and cruelly separated from her children. (She was not even allowed to give them one last embrace before she was carted off to her gruesome death.)

In her adversity, Marie Antoinette emerged fearless and valiant, and as Fraser puts it, "Undoubtedly, it is the death of Marie Antoinette that casts a glow of nobility over her life story." *

Selwa Roosevelt has been a Washington journalist and is former chief of protocol for the White House.

Painting of a youthful Marie Antoinette at the spinet by Franz Xaver WagenschonDrawing of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine by Jacques Louis David