This biography was the first well researched effort to present the life of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette in alignement to the facts and also adding psychological insight.
Prior to this effort all renditions tended to idiolize her as a martyr or deride her as the personification of all the evils of the old regime. She was neither of the two, but as correctly assesed here, a quite ordinary, uneducated woman that led an extraordinary life due to the historical components that surrounded her fate as a member of a ruling house.
Not just ordinary, she was also very naive and not at all intelligent, as when she arrived in France it took seven years for her to get pregnant and it would have taken more had her brother not pushed the husband into the operation that he desperately needed to be able to perform. This is an incredible contrast with a similar situation encountered, much earlier by Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II and did not get pregnant for several years, but Catherine was a Medici and she found a solution to that problem, and all the others that came with her long reign. It is not the youth and lack of experience that were as important as the willingness, the initiative that is missing from her character. This is also the reason that she was almost illiterate when she arrived in France, as shown by her primitive handwriting when she signed her marriage document. The book is particularly accurate in relating the transformation that occurred in this otherwise ordinary woman when the sufferings of the Revolution brought out a character of great depth and tragic dimension that completely stole the limelight from the Revolution with her tragic trial and execution. If the queen's life were made into an opera, the best arias would be reserved for the last act, because it is then that she truly meets her destiny. In a completely unexpected situation, the spendrift, capricious queen turned into a figure worthy of the best of Racine's tragic heroines, her strength of character, the nobility of her every move form the time of the assult to Versailles till her death, is a unique trajectory in a spiritual transformation that to this day has made her a fascinating, unforgettable character. This is most probably the reason that her character is so controversial to this day in France, for Marie Antoinette managed to be a perfect queen when it was least expected of her, and surprised herself, and history by completely humilating the Revolution without intending to do so. The sadistic cruelty, petit-bourgeois pettiness and abusive violence and hatred that characterized the Revolution is all too exposed in the record with her. We understand the people of France were hungry, downtrodden and frustrated by generations of complete neglect from their leaders, and we sympathise with their desire for freedom and improvement, but it is nevertheless hard to believe that the rabble, and the lowest denominator in decency so quickly dominated the movement and called all the shots from the very day of the assult to the Bastille in July 1789 when they proceeded to butcher the surrendering officers in charge, to Robespierre's execution in July 1794 were five long years of violence and terror.
As Zweig understands and explains so well in the last chapters, Marie Antoinette was not equipped to understand what had happened either intellectually or through education. She was therefore unfair to the Revolutionaries in the sense that she was unable to accept moderation and reform, which were motivated by a just cause of social improvement and wanted better for their country than the ruinous, inefficient and financially chaotic estate she and Louis XVI inherited from the real culprit if there was ever any, of the disaster, the indolent, selfish, egocentric and completely misguided Louis XV who was at least smart enough to realize and say, at the end of his (unfortunately) long, wasted life "After me, the Deluge". She saw the Revolution as a rebellion, a sign of the wrath of God perhaps for her past sins, but never as a social change that was overdue and necessary, she could not have understood, from her isolated and sheltered perspective, plus more importantly, it was not her job to do so, she married the king but was NOT the ruler herself, and aside from the myths created by the pamphlets, her husband did have a mind of his own and did not automatically do what she suggested or wanted.
As explained here, it was the natural incompetence of the king that prevented any chance of appropriate governing for the hard times they faced, even in a prosperous era he would have been an impediment as he never wanted, as it is clarified in the book, to be king in the first place. He was a quiet, good intentioned man that was happiest making clocks and locks. This image could have been an excellent one to transition the monarchy from the fairy tale nightmare of denial of Louis XV's reign into a modern constitutional state, and Marie Antoinette would have adored the role of simpler, homier queen, but this never happened. The king was too weak and unmotivated to do anything, or enough of anything, but what was worse, he blocked everyone who wanted to, from doing it also. France had in her past kings that were completely dominated by capable ministers: Louis XIII and Richilieu being the most obvious example, so the natural ambition that was very much present in both his brothers and the Duc D'Orleans were never utilized and eventually they turned against him, thus weakening the system further and providing the first primary impulse for the avalanche. The way he handled the famous affair of the necklace was perfect in showing all the deficiencies in his character. Readers may forget for example that at the time Talleyrand, the greatest diplomat of France, was already a bishop and could have been made a minister/advisor, there was no lack of talent around, but the king was attracted to mediocrity and consistently selected poor choices for all the important positions. Moreover, the lapse of time between 1774 and 1789 is long enough for SOME change to have ocurred but nothing was done till it was too late.
The passages that explain her relationship with Count Fersen and clarify the rumors about her suppossed lesbian affairs are excellent because we understand totally the intimate aspects of her life, how her friendships were maligned by a press avid for her destruction and defamation, because it served perfectly into their political motives. We also understand that this woman, after fulfilling her duty as a wife and queen, had to find an emotional support that her husband could never provide. It is also important to note that the entire episode of the escape to Varennes was excellently organized by Fersen, and almost met with success but for the king's lack of decision and strength of character. Even when they were detained he could have bullied the post master and gotten away, but it is a sad episode when inbreeding has produced a creature that can not even fight for survival, which is what we see instead.
The closing chapter on the trial and execution is a masterpiece of theatrical reconstruction, we can feel the oppressiveness of those horrible months between the king's execution and her own, particularly in recounting the painful separation from her son, then her total isolation at La Conciergerie. The magnificent last stand at her trial where the women present give her an ovation is all the proof we need as to why she has become an inmortal figure of history, but we also see it in the letter that she wrote to the king's sister, a letter which she never received, but that has survived as a testament to a new station in her life she herself never would have ambitioned or suspected, true greatness.