In 1789, Marie Antoinette was a thirty-three-year-old queen, a wife, and a mother. One day in October she took her last walk through the Trianon gardens, her peaceful respite from the demands of palace life, fully unaware that for the next five years she would ride the waves of one of the most moving revolutions in modern history. Author Juliet Grey invites readers to join Marie Antoinette on a sympathetic journey through this period, in her third fictional narrative of the young queen’s life. Grey offers a detailed glimpse into Marie Antoinette’s own thoughts as she experiences events and situations, interacts with family and politicians, and tries to understand what is happening to the world around her.
“…I sink to my knees in a deep court curtsy, inclining my head in a show of profound humility. The roar diminishes to a murmur. And when I rise, I lay my arms across my bosom and raise my eyes heavenwards, offering a prayer to God to spare my husband and children…” p. 37
Confessions of Marie Antoinette is set in Versailles, The Tuileries Palace, The Temple and finally, the Concierge. The royal family of France is moved along from one new home to the next and forced to manage their family life in unthinkable circumstances. Well researched, Grey provides plenty of detail about the main events of the period to create a sense of chaos and reality. Life was hard outside of Versailles; politicians were serious and mobs were a very dangerous reality. There was not a week that would go by during this time when a new scandal, trial or story was published fueling the hostility towards the queen and aristocracy.
Peppered with hope, the story is full of attempts and plots presented to save the monarch. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette make seemingly logical decisions regarding all their actions. Louis’ main concern is the safety of his people and Antoinette’s is for her two young children. The informed reader (or anyone who is familiar with the history here) may feel a bit uncomfortable knowing what these actions will lead to and how they appear to be folly rather than sound judgment.
“At his age, while he plays he should be singing the nursery rhyme my friend the Duchess of Devonshire taught him…Instead, he dreams of another desperate flight to safety.” p. 324
Grey’s Antoinette is heartbreaking. She spends much of the book seeking out friends, trying to find any friendly face that can show her some kindness. Limited to her own perspective, she evokes our compassion. I found myself dabbing my eyes while sitting in Whole Foods right around chapter twenty-five (you will know when you get there…)
Through all the losses, the husband and wife strive to keep their children safe by maintaining a somewhat normal daily life. They continue their education and give them all the love they can. Perhaps a more apt title for this novel would be Realizations of Marie Antoinette because she is not truly confessing anything, but she is learning much, and realizing a lot about her past, present, and future.
Alfred Elmore, “The Tuileries, June 20, 1792.” 1860,
oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise.
Although Confessions is the third novel in a trilogy about Antoinette, I found it read as a stand-alone story. I have not read the earlier books, although now I am curious to see how Grey’s Antoinette grew as a character over the series. I have a feeling the first two novels are full of the 18th-century court life and etiquette we miss out on in Confessions, so you may want to start there. Some readers might find the first-person present-tense narrative strange if you have not read the previous books. I found myself struggling a little to connect with Marie Antoinette through the first chapter. However, the author succeeds in giving a voice to this historical figure; she writes with clear passion for the subject and the story moves so fast you fall right into it.
A particularly strong scene is the storming of the Tuileries Palace. A mob of citizens breaks into the palace seeking out the king and queen. Without time to join each other or come up with a plan, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each forced to face the mob on their own. They are caught in separate rooms with only their courage to pull them through. With a table separating mother and children from the mob, Grey describes this frightening scene beautifully, full of emotion and descriptive detail.
Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.”
Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise.
“I glance down at my trembling hands. ‘God Himself has forsaken me,’ I murmur in reply. ‘I no longer dare to pray.’” p. 334
You may wonder what the point is of reading a book when you already know the ending. I admit I thought this too as I started the book. In a moment of self-amusement, I remembered the opening credits of HBO’s The Tudors. “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.” Confessions of Marie Antoinette gives us an alternative and deeper look at this fascinating woman, and the opportunity to walk in her shoes through the French Revolution.
4 out of 5 Stars
Lauren Puzier is an art historian specializing in the late 18th-century French aristocracy. Visit her at her blog Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.
Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey
Ballantine Books (2013)
Trade paperback (441) pages
Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2013; Text Lauren Puzier © 2013, Austenprose.com