After Napoleon, Marie Antoinette is probably the most famous French historical figure in Britain, even though she was originally Austrian and he was Corsican. At an early age, however, both left home for France (Marie Antoinette at fifteen, Napoleon at nine), and both were defined by the most extraordinary event in its modern history, the French Revolution – Napoleon as its beneficiary, Marie Antoinette as its victim. After so many books and so much polemic about the queen and her fate, is there anything more to say?
The answer, as this fascinating biography proves, is emphatically yes. As the author of the standard biography of her husband, Louis XVI, John Hardman has every qualification for turning his attention to Marie Antoinette. Of course, that alone does not guarantee that this biography will provide a major contribution to the subject. What ensures this is the particular approach Hardman takes. He chooses to focus on the political role Marie Antoinette played, from becoming queen of France in 1774 to her execution in 1793. At first sight, it may seem bizarre that this aspect of her life needs underlining, given the part she played in that political upheaval par excellence, the Revolution. Yet although she has been the subject of some excellent biographies by the likes of Stefan Zweig and Antonia Fraser, not a lot has been written specifically on her political views and actions. Up until now, the most important work on this topic has been a PhD thesis written by Jeanne Arnaud-Bouteloup in 1924, ‘Le Rôle politique de Marie-Antoinette’, which Hardman builds on to good effect.
Why this neglect? The answer probably lies in recent historical trends. In the last thirty years a substantial cottage industry has developed, focusing almost exclusively not on what the queen did but on how she was perceived. Above all, it has concentrated on the flood of pornographic libels