Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig

Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig

First published in German as Marie Antoinette: Bilnis eines mittleren Charakters by Insel Verlag in 1932. English language translation of 1933 by Eden and Cedar Paul republished by Pushkin Press in July 2010.

One of my WorldReads from Austria

Where to buy this book:
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'Stefan Zweig based his biography of Marie Antoinette, who became the Queen of France when still a teenager, on her correspondence with both her mother and her great love the Count Axel von Fersen. Zweig analyses the chemistry of a woman’s soul, from her intimate pleasures to her public suffering as a Queen under the weight of misfortune and history. Zweig describes Marie Antoinette in the king’s bedroom, in the enchanted and extravagant world of the Trianon and with her children. He also gives an account of the Revolution, the Queen's resolve during the failed escape to Varennes, her imprisonment in the Conciergerie and her tragic end under the guillotine. This has been the definitive biography of Marie Antoinette since its publication, inspiring later biographers, including Antonia Fraser, and the recent film adaptation.'

Stefan Zweig wrote his biography of Marie Antoinette in the 1930s so I expected it to be quite hard going compared to more recent fare. In fact, other than needing to look up a few words - he does employ a wide vocabulary! - I found the read to be engrossing and frequently exciting. A novelist at heart, Zweig has a good sense of pace and concentrates on portraying Antoinette as a the woman she was rather than trying to force her to conform to the moulds of heartless queen or tragic heroine. I was interested at the end to read his explanation of which historical material he chose to incorporate and quote, which was left out and, most importantly, why he made these decisions.

I was irritated at points by a creeping tone of chauvinism. Zweig 'proves' some of his theories with sweepingly generic statements that Antoinette must have believed or behaved in certain ways because that is what women do. On the whole however, I think he had a good understanding of his subject and his biography is obviously well researched. Descriptions of Versailles, Trianon and the Tuileries are rich in detail which brought the Rococo period very much to life for me. I was also able to envisage the chief players as real people rather than having them obscured by dry dates. Having not known much detail of this period of French history before I am now intrigued to discover more. I am also keen to read more of Zweig's books both more biography and perhaps examples of his fiction too.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Stefan Zweig / Biography and memoir / Books from Austria


  1. You take the good from the bad, and by the sounds of it, this was mostly good. :D

    1. Yes! Very informative and surprisingly entertaining :-)