Thursday, May 27, 2010

Marie Antoinette

Author: Antonia Fraser
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 458 not counting Index and Bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover, although I am sure that there is a paperback edition out by now that is probably more modestly priced
Where Did I Hear About It: Browsing through the library stacks

The Backstory

Marie Antoinette invokes a lot of different images, and it would be a rare case to find someone who hasn't heard of this many-times-villianized Queen of France. She was born in Vienna in 1755 to Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire. After a bout of smallpox ravaged the royal family, Marie Antoinette became the choice of the royal Bourbon house of France for the French heir (traditionally termed the "Dauphin"), Louis Auguste. She was married to Louis by proxy in 1770, and later, made the long trek to France to meet her husband. As Marie was meant to symbolize an alliance between Austria and France, her reception by the court in France was naturally mixed.

Louis Auguste's grandfather, Louis XV, died in 1774 of smallpox, and Louis Auguste became Louis XVI. Marital problems plagued the royal couple during the first years of their marriage. There is good reason to suppose that the marriage was not consummated for close to 7 years, putting the future of the French royal family in danger and making the specter of annulment a very real possibility for Marie. The problem was exacerbated by Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois, who fathered a son in 1775--the first family offspring of the next generation, and therefore, the heir to the French throne. In 1777, Marie's older brother, Emperor Joseph (her father had since died), paid a visit to the royal couple, and, after a man-to-man pep talk, the marriage was consummated and regular sexual relations commenced. The result would be four children, Marie Therese (1778), Louis Joseph (1781), Louis Charles (1785), and Sophie Helene Beatrice (1786). Louis Joseph would die of what was probably spinal tuberculosis in 1789, and Sophie only lived a year after her birth.

Marie wasn't popular with the French for the majority of her reign as Queen. She was frequently satirized in comics, and the progression of their content is very asymptomatic of how the public felt about her. Early on, Louis XVI's rumored "impotence" was featured, and later, Marie's attempts to find sexual satisfaction with others. This transformed into comics that claimed she was romantically involved with many people close to her, including her brothers-in-law and her close female friends. Later, she was the scapegoat for the conspicuous consumption of the untaxed nobility--and this was the most dangerous charge. Two wars--the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War in the US, lasting from 1754 to 1763) and the American Revolution had dramatically increased France's debt, causing rampant inflation and devastating poverty. The court, led by Louis XVI and Marie, continued on as usual, purchasing expensive properties and enjoying a wide range of luxury goods while the country suffered.

In 1789, the national unrest came to a head. The "Third Estate"--a legislative body made up of people who would have been considered of the "common" variety--declared itself a National Assembly with wide-reaching legislative powers. Louis XVI was a figure who lacked the definitive nature of his forefathers, and therefore, he could do little to stop the progression that followed. The National Assembly began with the introduction of a Constitutional Monarchy, but gradually, the king and his family were boxed in by an increasingly hostile public. They were eventually moved from the royal palace at the Tullieries to prison, where they were interrogated. Louis XVI was declared in violation of the laws of the new state, and he was killed by the guillotine in 1793. Marie Antoinette, having lost her royal title, was herself executed 10 months later.

Marie Antoinette is typically portrayed as living in excessive luxury, completely oblivious to the suffering of the poor. She is attributed with the phrase "Let them eat cake" in response to the assertion that the people were without bread.

What About the Book?

If all you're after is a good overview of her life, then, you will not be disappointed here. This was admittedly what I was after--I knew little about the events of Marie Antoinette's life before I read this book. However, if you're expecting more, you will be disappointed. The book lacks substance and the author's connection with the material. You get the sense that Antonia Fraser just decided one day to write about Marie Antoinette because she could--not because she was fascinated by the subject or determined to learn and write about something new.

There is very little analysis of the sources, which for some is a boon because the biography forms a narrative that flows very naturally. There is the occasional historical note, accented by a star next to terms or people in various places, but this is really the end of any strong evaluation of the available sources about Marie's life. Fraser does make some attempts, but they do not go very far. For example, she does lightly discuss the possibility that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Count Fersen, a Swedish family friend and soldier, and although Fraser seems convinced that the affair took place, the evidence she presents actually implies the opposite was true, of which Fraser is unaware. Her interests are also obvious, but this affects the balance of the text. Fraser is very interested in Marie Antoinette's life at court before the French Revolution, but the Revolution is treated more briefly than perhaps it should have been in the narrative. In addition, the Epilogue is a disappointment. It doesn't tie the biography together, and instead, treats some events and people heavily and others, not at all (Marie's daughter is discussed at length, while her son, who died very controversially in 1795, is featured in about a paragraph).

Finally, Fraser, in attempt to deliver a good story, fails to see beyond what the sources literally tell her about Marie and her life. Although it is only appropriate to be sympathetic to Marie and her family, and the horrible fate most of them met, Fraser lets this distort some very important fundamentals about Marie and the beginning of the French Revolution. Marie was a part of a culture of nobility that lived only to please itself. Of course, this culture included countless other people, too, but that doesn't negate her involvement as one half of its center. She was entirely oblivious to the suffering of the people, and this was her one major flaw--a flaw acquired by a lifetime spent in royal comfort and ease. She certainly didn't do anything to directly hurt the people, but, while she and others like her were able to run up millions of livres of debt to buy fine things, hundreds of thousands of other people in her realm couldn't buy a loaf of bread to feed themselves. Even when the French Revolution began, Louis XVI and Marie were unable to shed the trappings of wealth and the court ceremony in favor of providing something for the people. Had they done so, the outcome may have been very different. In being such a great fan of Marie, Fraser really misses this point, and I think if she had grasped it, the book would have gained the extra depth it obviously lacks.

Rating: 5--it's enjoyable, but you won't walk away being "wowed"
Buy It or Borrow It: I'm not sure I'd really put in a vote for reading it at all. Certainly don't buy it unless you find it in a used bookstore, in paperback form, for $5 or less. If you don't know anything about the period or about Marie, like me, borrowing it and reading it is worth your time if you're suddenly hit with an interest in this topic. However, don't expect more than the story of her life--no major revelations here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The First Queen of England: The Myth of "Bloody Mary"

Author:Linda Porter
Publication Date:2008
Length:About 418 pages, not including Index and Bibliography
Cost:List price is $27.95
Where Did I Hear About It:Browsing through the Biography section of the local library

The Backstory

Mary Tudor, later Mary I of England, was the only living child produced by the union of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. She was born in 1516, the first child to survive after her mother's four miscarriages, one stillbirth, and the death of an infant son in his second month of life. At first, the fickle Henry was encouraged by his little daughter, taking her as a sign of healthy sons to follow. When he eventually lost all hope of other heirs by his wife, he took steps to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, and later, Mary bastardized. Mary and Katherine, physically separated but in regular correspondence, were suddenly thrust backstage. Henry severed England's ties to the Roman Catholic church, thereby allowing him to put away Katherine and take a new wife in the form of the much maligned Anne Boleyn. In the meantime, Mary was urged, coaxed, and threatened into renouncing her titles and rightful place in the English succession. Upon the birth of her sister, Elizabeth, she was sent to live in her household and serve her as one of her maids of honor--an unprecedented move against the heir presumptive to the throne. After her mother's death, she bowed to pressure from all sides and admitted the illegitimacy of her parents' marriage and thus, her own illegitimacy.

Relations between Mary and her father improved through the intercession of three of his subsequent wives, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr. Upon Henry's death in 1547, both Mary and Elizabeth were still considered illegitimate, but they were written into the succession after their brother, Edward. Edward, a fervent Protestant, was extremely hard on Catholic Mary, desperate to make her conform to the laws of the land. Mary, conscious of having bowed to pressure regarding her legitimacy, was unwilling to breach her conscience a second time. Equally heavy coercion had no effect on the practice of her religion. However, things were bad enough that Mary considered escaping from England to her Hapsburg relations on the Continent. It is fortunate that she did not take this course of action--Edward was dead in 1553, the victim of a respiratory infection. Edward and his council attempted to subvert Mary's succession by declaring her cousin, Jane Grey (see above) queen, but this was short-lived.

Mary was queen for a very short time, but she was England's first woman monarch in her own right. She and her council ruled the country effectively, attempting to adapt an English version of Catholicism to the changes that had already taken place in the church. She had a very effective council, and her many years of struggle had produced a capable, strong woman with the resolve to lead the country. She married Philip of Spain in 1554, but Philip's priorities were in the Low Countries, and although he was kind to Mary, he was less-than-content with a bride 11 years older and having remained so long content single. Mary suffered two "phantom pregnancies," and she died in 1558. Philip and Mary never had children, so she was succeeded by her younger sister, Elizabeth.

Mary is a much maligned character in English history, often viewed by seemingly objective historians as both a less-desirable precursor to the more famous Elizabeth and as a momentary set-back to England's inevitable course towards patriotic Protestantism. She earned the nickname "bloody Mary" after sentencing 300 Protestants to death by burning for heresy.

What About the Book?

This was an exceptionally enjoyable book, which I didn't expect. I figured that Mary's life would be a good follow-up to Jane Grey, and I enjoyed this biography far more. Linda Porter is a very good writer--capable of taking complicated historical documents from the period and transforming them into a coherent narrative, easily readable by the least proficient historians. Although over 400 pages long, it doesn't feel that way to the reader--the reader is constantly seeking to learn more, to read one last page, and it is a hard book to put down.

The history is good in this book--Porter clearly takes her information from existing sources. She is mindful of the weaknesses of some of these sources and the authors who composed them, and this is a point she makes often to her readers. However, this is a biography of Mary and not an examination of why Mary obtained the nickname "bloody Mary," which makes the title deceiving. She does flesh out Mary's character in ways that other authors have entirely ignored--Porter did not come to the table having formed any opinions about Mary, and she allowed the available sources to tell her who Mary was rather than relying upon the prejudices of generations of previous historians, colored by the magnificence of Elizabeth's reign.

There is the occasional flaw in her work--on the minor side, she includes a portrait that probably isn't Mary and identifies it as the queen about 7 years before she was crowned. The sitter is a very matronly, but very attractive woman, who bears no resemblance to portraits of Mary known beyond a doubt to be her. Given there are so many likenesses of Mary to choose from, this choice seems a poor one. In addition, the end of the book wasn't quite as good as the rest. Porter covers Mary's reign in the context of its events. It reads like a chronology rather than a biography, with fewer insights into Mary and her view of the events of the day. She indicates that Mary wrote often to her husband, Philip, but she doesn't reference many, if any, of those letters, and they are probably the key to seeing events from Mary's point of view. Porter also asserts that Mary died of a viral fever that was widespread in 1558, and other biographers seem to believe that Mary had some form of cancer as evidenced by her last phantom pregnancy.

The Epilogue of the book was probably the biggest let down. Rather than examine the development of the myth of "bloody Mary," like the title implies, Porter gives a rundown of what happened to each of the biography's characters in a post-Mary world. Although interesting, I think that the reader would have been more interested in how Mary's reputation was blackened in subsequent years. Porter does touch upon this in the narrative, but only one source is referenced several times without further examination.

Overall, this is an exceptional read--it puts Mary in a whole new light, even for people who have been studying the Tudor age for some time. It also breeds a sense of respect and understanding for Mary in the reader that has hitherto been undeveloped and even stifled by our perception of Elizabeth, constructed by countless histories, biographies, TV miniseries, and movies.

Rating:8.5, maybe even a 9
Buy it or Borrow it:This is a tough one. I liked it enough that I wouldn't have minded adding it to my library, and I will probably read it again somewhere along the line. If you find a good used copy of this, it will probably go for under $10, and if so, it is well worth opening your wallet. You probably can find a softcover edition of this, too--if not now, then, soon--and that would be worth it. However, if you're skeptical about the content, and perhaps even don't like Mary much, you may want to scout it out in a library first, just to make sure you'll like the content.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

Author: Eric Ives
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 293 pages, not including index and notes
Cost: About 30 dollars from a bookstore
Where Did I Hear About It: BBC History Magazine

History: The Backstory

Who is Jane Grey? For those of you who don't know, there was a time when it looked like she was going to be queen of England, displacing both Mary I and Elizabeth I, the famous daughters of the many-times-married Henry VIII. Edward VI, Henry's only legitimate son, succeeded him upon his death in 1547. However, Edward was only 9 years old, and more alarmingly, he was a sickly child. Edward became seriously ill in the spring of 1553, dying on July 6 of that year. In the meantime, a new design for the succession of the crown was devised. Henry VIII stipulated that after Edward would come his older sister, Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon) and then, Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn). However, Henry never backed down from his claim that his marriages to each of the girls' mothers had been "unlawful," and therefore, the girls were illegitimate. Whether through prompting by the Regency Council appointed to assist Edward in governing or by Edward himself, within months of his death, the succession was changed to exclude Mary and Elizabeth entirely. Instead, the crown would fall to the daughter of Henry VIII's niece, Jane Grey (Jane's mother was the daughter of one of Henry's sisters). Jane was rushed into London to be proclaimed queen at first, with the full force of the peers of the realm behind her. However, when Mary managed to muster a formidable defense against this violation of her right, not bowing meekly as she was anticipated to do, Jane's support fell apart entirely. Mary was proclaimed queen throughout the realm, the councilors and peers sheepishly sought her favor and forgiveness, and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although tried and convicted for treason, Jane expected that she would been pardoned by Mary. In the end, Mary decided to execute her, which was done at the Tower in February, 1544. Jane "reigned" for 9 days total, and is often entirely left out of the rolls of the monarchs of England.

What About the Book?

This book was a good read overall, although I don't entirely buy Ives's theories. He admits fully that there is a lack of evidence relating to Jane at the beginning, but this doesn't produce a sense of caution when making conclusions about her. On the other hand, he discusses Jane probably the least often of any of the characters in the book--perhaps a better title could have been considered that implied simply the "history" of the succession between Edward, Jane and Mary. In fact, Ives' main aim seems to be to rehabilitate the reputation of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. John Dudley is usually branded by historians as masterminding the whole transfer of the crown from Edward to Jane and bypassing Mary in order to grasp at power himself. Historians imply that he was "in control" of the young, naive Edward and knew that he would not be able to influence the older, more confident Mary should she succeed. Therefore, they conclude, Dudley encouraged Edward to pass the crown to the young, and equally naive Jane, who was conveniently married to Dudley's son, Guildford, in the spring of 1553. Thus, Dudley could keep his prominent court position and even have a son on the English throne.

Ives claims many things about Dudley. He attempts to assert that Dudley demonstrated signs of insecurity and even intense loyalty to whoever the monarch happened to be at different points in his life. However, his evidence for these assertions isn't strong. For example, he examined the ways that Dudley characterized himself in letters and noticed a pattern of personal debasement or "unworthiness" expressed in them. This is common throughout the period--some variation on "your most unworthy and humble servant" appeared on every letter composed at the time. Therefore, I don't think that this can be taken as the kind of evidence that Ives claims it to be. He also skirts over the issue of Jane Grey's marriage to his son, Guildford Dudley, while considerations for the succession were in order. Although it hadn't been firmly decided upon, by Ives' reckoning, when Jane married Guildford, Dudley had to be aware of the possibilities long in advance of a final decision. Marrying someone related the royal family was never lightly considered at the time, and it was probably more of an issue in the 1540s and 1550s than any other time because Henry had only three children, two of whom he declared illegitimate. Dudley may not have had designs for himself, but he would have enjoyed quite a considerable position should Guildford and Jane actually ruled England. Dudley may not have been influencing Edward directly to change the succession, but by the time the two young people wed, he certainly knew the possibilities.

Ives' style is excellent--this is a read for anyone, not just the history buff. His chapters are short and to the point, and he divides the book into sections, focusing first on the key players and second, on the events. In the second half, the book improves in that it is very clear that he extrapolates his theories from a lot of existent sources, throwing his vast knowledge of the period into the mix for a great analysis of what happened between Jane's accession and her execution. He introduces to the reader the little that is out there about Jane from the short years of her life, and, after reading many similar accounts clearly based on a lot of guesses, this was particularly refreshing. His insight into the changes made by Edward to the succession is an equally rewarding read, and Ives is probably the first author who traces the progress of those changes. I wish he would have continued this pattern until the end of the book--instead, his last chapter focuses on "Jane the Legend" through the 16th - 20th centuries. This wasn't interesting to me--not as interesting as his history--but this may be a bright spot for others who have heard about Jane through media other than history.

Rating: 6.5 to 7 out of 10
Buy it or Borrow it: Borrow it rather than buying it. It's only out in hardcover right now, and 30 bucks for a book of less than 300 pages of content is steep. I don't think this will become a reference for anyone interested in the history, but if you are interested in the primary sources that went into this, the notes are photocopiable. I like it a lot, but I'm not sure it will be worth a second read yet.