The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette
by Carolly Erickson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette / 0-312-36150-5
I love reading about Marie Antoinette, and I couldn't pass up this book with the lovely cover and sumptuous cover quotes. The novel is a quick read, and in the diary format that I usually find so compelling, but somehow the whole overall feel of the book seems dull and uninspired.
The Marie Antoinette pictured here seems so saccharine and flavorless. Everything she does is perfect - she loves her husband (despite his ugliness, awkwardness, and all the troubles he causes her), she "courtly" (i.e., without sex) loves her horse groom, she monogamously loves Count Fersen, she manages the country and household when the king can't be bothered, and even her short-sightedness with finances is largely brushed off as amusing little foibles. I feel that author Erickson is trying to counteract the lamentable tendency to thoroughly and unfairly villify Marie Antoinette, but has overshot the mark into whitewashing her into the perfect suburban housewife - it's just so neat and tidy.
Furthermore, it's frustrating to have to point out that fictional characters should not obviously be fictional. To put it another way, when I'm reading a fictional account, I should not be able to tell - until the final Author's Note - which characters were made up out of whole-cloth. To provide a 'villain' for the novel, Erickson has invented a serving maid that might as well have '666' tattooed on her forehead for all the subtlety she brings. You may well think this character to be the devil incarnate when she is able to sass royalty brazenly, single-handedly organize villagers to revolt, and then manage to insert herself into ever major interview with the queen in her later years - including as her guard, her tormentor, her captor, and in a gratuitous "threaten with rape and dismemberment" scene. Where does she find the energy to do all that AND clean chamber-pots, is what I want to know. But seriously, a single focal-point villain is not a good thing, and the part should have been broken up more carefully and realistically - it just strains the credulity and reminds the reader that this is fiction, not history.
Beyond anything else, the pacing seems a little "off" in this novel. Almost no time is spent pre-wedding in this novel - the famous scene of her clothing change-over is left out entirely, and she seems to become engaged and then married in the course of a few days. The early years of her marriage are skipped through quickly as well, and much of the drama of the aunts and DuBarry is hurried past. Once she becomes queen, a great deal of time is spent on her early years, and then largely with an emphasis on Count Fersen, and yet an awful lot is not said - and what is said seems sometimes confusing and poorly edited, for instance when we are told that her journal was found and all her secrets about Eric became court gossip, and yet a few pages later she mentions that her greatest fear is that anyone will find out that she in fond of Eric. Things get worse when Sophie-the-child is introduced and is not always carefully differentiated between Sophie-the-maid.
Overall, this isn't a bad book, and I think a lot of people will find the reading pleasant, but I found it disappointing because so much interesting material was left out, and so much of what was written failed to really hold the attention or add depth to the characters. "Shallow" is how I would describe it - as sugary and substance-less as a piece of cake.
~ Ana Mardoll
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