This book is the perfect introduction to the French revolution. It presents a 'visual guided tour' of the life and death of the tragic queen Marie Antoinette. Written in 1932 by the Viennese Jewish novelist and professional biographer Stephan Zweig, the book dips fairly deeply into psychoanalytical thinking, and sometimes the veneration given to Freudian ideas can seem questionable by today's standards. However, the scholarship is truly masterful, and draws on extensive research into the letters and diaries of the most minor characters, without sacrificing narrative style or readability. Zweig writes books that move swiftly, but are rich in detail, and could repay a second reading.
Married at fifteen, crowned queen at nineteen, and beheaded at thirty-seven, Marie Antoinette went from the heights of heedless frivolity into the depths of isolation and despair. Zweig argues that she converted the arrogance and narcissism of her early years as the "queen of rococo", into a brave and selfless defense of the aristocratic lost cause. Surrounded by the mounting violence and insanity of the revolution, which mirrored the earlier unreason of a decadent aristocracy, she was stripped of her power and prestige, but passionately refused to surrender her honor. In the end the force of her character vindicated the nobility which her years of frivolity had discredited. But it was too late, the damage had been done, and she more than any other was the symbol against which the revolution was fought.
Independent of the historical significance of the topic, this book is magnificently written, it moves at a rapid and exciting pace, and it contains many deep moral lessons. The Freudian prejudices of the author should be borne in mind, but in some ways they add to the phenomenal drama this book evokes.