The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Review

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

12 thoughts on “The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Review

    1. You’re very welcome. It took me forever to write the review as my “love it” moments were pages long. You made me laugh and at other times feel heartbroken for little Maria Antonia. Really, you deserve all the accolades I could give you. The book is awesome and I’m afraid I will not be able to avoid recommending it when somebody mentions their interest in Antoinette! Salut to a job well done, Mme G!

      As an aside, when is your next book coming out? I can’t wait to read your latest offering and hope you are having a fine time writing your third novel.

      1. Thank you! 🙂

        I felt so sorry for her when I was writing it and was also intrigued by the odd snippets I read about her being quite the prankster in her youth. 😉

        My next book is out in August! I’m just finishing the edits at the moment and getting excited about the cover! Book three will be out in the autumn and I have to say that I’m very proud of it! I really hope that you like them! 🙂


      2. I was quite taken aback (in a good way!) to discover Antoinette was funny and playful but it does make sense. She loved children, had a thing for laughing and parties, and seemed exuberant in her better days. It was a fabulous detail to emphasize and made me look at her in a new light, which I really enjoyed.

        I cannot wait for your next book! It’ll have to steal its way up my massive tbr pile. Good luck with the edits–not fun but so necessary to making a book sparkle 🙂

    1. So happy you enjoyed the review. Yes, Antoinette is wonderful fodder for exploration since there is much mystery surrounding her private versus public character.

  1. Hello” Madame Guillotine?” is that how we address you? Apologies if not. The net is awash in blogs and rare are those which speak to me let alone lure me in with their content & images. Your did quickly and fully. Brava! Brava! Not that I am so lure-worthy but that you have done so well as to no doubt appeal to many. When time permits, I shall have to read THE SECRET DIARY OF A PRINCESS. May I ask you if you have written the names of the artists for the images running down the right column. 😦 I can not find them, and I would love to know. I shall look for you on T

    Happy Writing. W

      1. Yes, I am indeed not Madame Guillotine, though her books and blog are lovely so I guess you mistaking me for her isn’t so bad 🙂 Her blog is at

        In reference to your previous question regarding the artists on my right sidebar, they are as follows:
        Winter – Francois Boucher; The Defenseless Rose – Michel Garnier; The Bolt – Jean Fragonard; The Beloved Portrait – Jean Frederic Schall; The Stolen Kiss – Fragonard; The Electric Spark – Louis-Leopold Boilly; Fashionable Contrasts – James Gillray; Robert Lovelace Preparing to Abduct Clarissa Harlowe – Francis Hayman; Marriage a la Mode – Hogarth; Lavinia Spencer – Sir Joshua Reynolds; The Meeting – Fragonard; Une Élégante À Sa Toilette – Michel Garnier; Lady with the Veil – Alexander Roslin.


    1. Clegg has a couple of other books worth checking out as well, one inspired by Edith Wharton’s Buccaneers and the other about the French Revolution.

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