All week I have sneaked in moments to read Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess and I must say it was worth every minute of lost sleep. I adored Clegg’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette, and considering that this is a review and not a gush fest, I’m going to try my best to forgo repeating just how much I think every Antoinette fan should read it.
What I loved:
Clegg really made Antoinette’s early life come alive for me. The voice was so authentic to Antoinette’s spirit I fancied I had in my possession her long-lost diary and was gaining private insight into the misunderstood queen. For me, this emotional engagement was huge. Although life at Versailles and Antoinette’s reign, in particular, has always fascinated me, I usually experience dissonance between my disliking the queen and my appreciation for her as an historical character. Her personality is full of contradictions, which generally keep my attention, but unlike her mother, history has seldom regarded her as intelligent or a master of strategy. She was instead a leader of fashion, a spendthrift without regard for consequence, and all around girly girl.
Clegg’s novel offers a closer look at the makings of France’s infamous queen. If you’ve wondered how Maria Antonia, an awkward, uneducated girl who was never supposed to be a queen of France, became the belle of the fashionable world, this secret diary is a marvelous imagining of Antoinette’s inner thoughts while remaining firmly rooted in research.
1769, Joseph Ducreux
As any fan of the genre knows, historical fiction first and foremost needs to be more than a recitation of facts and events. Clegg happily succeeds in this. Her simple yet descriptive style transported me from the palaces of Schönbrunn and Hofburg, where Antoinette spent her childhood and adolescence, to her first steps into the glittering court of Versailles.
Today Antoinette seems quintessentially French, but in her time she was thought never fully Austrian or French. This lacking is what defines her. Austria was home, but also a place of harsh instruction and intense pressure. On the one hand we have Antoinette’s life of silk gowns, mischief, and loving sisters and on the other, a plague of early deaths coupled with the emotional austerity of her mother, Maria Theresa. Despite the juxtaposition of the royals’ distinct personalities, a real sense of family resonated throughout novel. I adored Antoinette’s sisters Amalia and Christina and sympathized with Antoinette’s feeling that she lacked consequence in such a large family. As she says early on,
“I am not witty like my sister Christina or funny like Elizabeth or interesting like Amalia or clever like our eldest sister Marianna or sweet like Josepha. I am just me, the youngest and some might say, most insignificant daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa, the most powerful female monarch in the world.”
The Austrian Royal Family
As the ultimate goal of Maria Theresa was to marry off her daughters and concrete Austrian alliances, the novel showed a procession of arranged matches with the sisters wondering who was next and when. Given the doubt surrounding her future, Antoinette understandably longs for direction. She wants to please her mother by doing her duty, but suffers under constant demands, which at times seem impossible for her to meet. She is painfully naive and undisciplined, but also modest, funny, and sweet.
The first picture of Antoinette seen by the Dauphin
Numerous improvements were required to make Antoinette suitable for Versailles. Sharing in her resistance to (and eventual delight in) those changes was an absolute joy to read. Clegg deftly tackles the transformation as Antoinette catches a glimpse of herself après a French hairdressing:
“I had always seen myself as the youngest, least pretty and most insignificant of Mama’s girls but now suddenly I believed that I too could be beautiful and important. I hope I never forget how I felt at that moment: powerful.”
This steady eye on the Antoinette we all know so well makes the novel a page turner. We know what happens at Versailles and we know the dismal end swept in by the revolution. What Clegg does is humanize Antoinette, making her the little sister, full of hope and giddy laughter and minor rebellions, with the internal reflection long due France’s most enigmatic queen.
A much recommended read for Marie Antoinette fans but also for anyone interested in what life was really like for princesses in 18th century Europe.
You can find out more about the author Melanie Clegg by visiting her popular art, history and writing blog at http://madameguillotine.org.uk/.