Although it's long been known that Marie Antoinette was hardly the extravagant, hateful woman often depicted in history, she just hasn't been able to shake her let them eat cake image, even after more than 200 years. By the time she was publicly beheaded in 1793, Marie Antoinette had earned the wrath of virtually an entire nation. Rumors flew about her sexual exploits and her lavish spending sprees, and mobs in Paris waited to kill her with their own hands. It must have been a terrifying time for the queen of France, who by then was a mother and a key adviser to her husband, Louis XVI, a meek man who was ill-suited for the duties of a king. Carolly Erickson offers a stark, fascinating view of the queen in The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, a fictionalized journal that is a strikingly believable account of what she might have felt as she watched the French monarchy crumble.
In truth, the queen did not do much to help her own cause. As someone whose chief purpose in life was producing an heir to the throne, Marie Antoinette lived aimlessly, filling her days by remodeling her many estates and starting new fashion trends among the royal court. Her idea of economy was wearing a pair of slippers at least twice. She rarely ventured beyond the gates of her palace and had little concept of the poverty in which her subjects lived.
Yet Erickson allows the queen frequent flashes of humanity. In one entry, Marie Antoinette is horrified to stumble across two homeless women who froze to death in the palace gardens. And to think that last night while these poor women were out here freezing, we were dancing at Madam Solange's ball, she wrote, noting that she arranged a funeral mass for the two unknown paupers.
Erickson has written extensively about royalty, including the Marie Antoinette biography To the Scaffolding. Erickson's fondness for her subject is clear, but she wisely refrains from romanticizing the queen, and as a result, The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is an astonishingly fresh portrait of one of the most talked-about women in history. Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.