The Royal Diaries series was launched a bit after the regular Dear America books, and while they started out with some of the most famous royal women in history, they did branch out quite a bit until about half focused on non-European women of colour. Which is a really terrific ratio for a YA book series, and I’m not about to trash them for that. But this one I happen to have out from the library.
Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria-France, 1769, Kathryn Lasky, 1998.
I think everyone knows the basics of the Marie Antoinette story—an Austrian princess who married the heir to the French throne, spent money lavishly and found herself at the focal point of court intrigue and revolutionary anti-monarchy sentiment, and was beheaded in 1793.
But rather than focus on that, this diary is about the young princess growing up in Austria under her tyrannical mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire. She doesn’t like to read or write, and her tutor is encouraging her to keep a diary in order to improve her spelling and composition. The first half of the diary is about Antonia’s (because that is her name growing up) difficulty in becoming the polished princess her mother wishes her to be, and the Hapsburg worry that the French court will not send the official proposal of marriage.
They do eventually, of course, but Antonia also loses her beloved little sister and her governess within the span of a few months just before she is supposed to be married. She finds the transition to French court life very traumatic as well—the Austrian court is much more relax and Antonia is allowed to pursue her interests (within reason). When she goes to France she is forced to give up everyone—every governess and tutor and serving maid, all her clothes, and everything she owns right down to her name.
More to the point, Marie has spent the previous year thinking about what her husband will be like—handsome, virile, smart, with shared interests, and so on. She is extremely disappointed to find out that Louis is fat and pimpled and exceedingly dull and his main interest is locks. (The key kind, not the river kind.) What’s more, Marie is unpopular in the French court right from the start, and has a hard time navigating the various alliances and relationships between the King, Louis, their relatives, and the huge number of courtiers who all live at Versailles.
Marie’s major conflict is her disapproval of Madame du Barry, the King’s mistress, with whom he consorts openly at Versailles. Because Marie is of a higher rank, du Barry cannot speak to her until Marie speaks first, and du Barry is put out by Marie’s refusal to do so. This causes strife between Marie and the King, and consequently ripples throughout the Court.
This is such an engagingly-written book, with some real gems of sentences. “I hardly know what I am anymore. Am I a child? I am a kind of wife but really more of a friend to Louis Auguste. Am I a woman? Am I…what am I? I think sometimes I am just an instrument who happens to resemble a human being but serves everyone else’s purposes. I do not know what to do or what to be.” What a nice little bit of writing, and fits nicely into the greater narrative without seeming forced or awkward.
Marie eventually speaks to du Barry, and correctly surmises that du Barry sees this as her victory—but Marie realizes that du Barry’s minor victory will only help her as long as the elderly King remains alive. “You see, dear diary, the light drained from the victor’s eyes and I, in return, became a bright and shining woman. I needed no jewels. A silly girl perhaps needs jewels, but I am a girl no longer. I have learned many things in the past year—much more than how to dance and play a hand of cards. Once upon a time, do you remember, Diary, when I was trying not to let Mama fill my head with her thoughts or ‘invade my nature?’ and then I wondered what exactly I meant by my nature? Well, now I know. And I needed no crown as I stood before du Barry, for I was resplendent in my own being. Du Barry knew this. She knew that she was the victor only of the moment and that I, Marie Antoinette, would become the Queen of the century.”
Wow. Nicely written. “Resplendent in my own being,” especially. The thing that comes up with the Royal Diaries books is that they tend to focus on the more likeable aspects of the protagonists—which is no surprise, because YA is a little young to focus on an unreliable, unlikeable narrator. In this one in particular I think Kathryn Lasky did a great job of setting up Marie as a young woman who likes nice things, but really wants to be liked as well. It foreshadows Marie’s eventual spending spree and court dramas without being too overwhelming.
Rating: A. No complaints.