January 2019 Book of the Month

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman

by Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942)


cover of the Viking Press first edition, 1933

The book was first published in 1932 under the title: Marie Antoinette: Bildnis eines mittleren Charakters

Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna in 1755 as archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of Habsburg-Lothringen, daughter to Maria Theresia and Emperor Francis I. In 1770, she was married to the French Dauphin and future king Louis XVI, to manifest a political liaison that had been vigorously pursued by both countries to form a coalition against Prussia. In his book, Zweig focuses on the woman who was queen and on the judgment that she faced by her contemporaries. Tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal, Marie Antoinette was convicted, sentenced to death and eventually executed by the Guillotine in 1793.

It is not easy to rate this book from the viewpoint of a historian. Zweig’s biography has reached great popularity, not only for its topic but also for its masterful language. It is well researched especially on the level of personal correspondence between the featured personages. The book, albeit not the work of a historian, has had a considerable influence on historical fiction and scientific writing ever since.

Zweig was a novelist with a PhD in philosophy, known for his analytical character studies, regularly submitting his personages to a thorough psychological analysis. He is famous for the melancholic atmosphere of his works and his tragic protagonists trapped between humanity and human cruelty. His work shows a man not only in search for himself but with a deep insight into the world around him and a need to grasp the changes of said world that left him in a deep shock, expatriated from his beloved homeland and that eventually contributed to his suicide. He remains without question one of the most accomplished writers of modern Austrian literature.

Stefan Zweig’s biographies are therefore rather a work of literature than scientific analysis. They reflect Zweig’s subjective interpretations but pay tribute to his deep knowledge of human nature.

Among them, Marie Antoinette is particularly interesting in retrospect of Zweig’s own connection to monarchic Austria. As a Jew growing up in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, he was very skeptical of the political changes after its downfall and developed a nostalgic view of the old world where the Emperor had held his protective hand over the cultural and ethnical variety.

Already the title catches the eye and gives food for thought. When Zweig describes Marie Antoinette as an average woman, he does not attribute her overly negative character traits. In his narration, she is not unintelligent, hypocritical, ill-natured or overly condescending. Zweig simply stretches the fact that she was unprepared and by nature of her character also unfitting for the responsibilities that should arise from the economic and political circumstances within France.

Zweig does not hide Marie Antoinette’s personal shortcomings but describes her in all the authenticity of her character. She is not a studious character, trying to avoid her more tedious duties wherever she can, charming her way out of them. According to Zweig, she lacks the perseverance for more responsible endeavors. She is described as a woman caught between a carefree, fun-loving and slightly irresponsible child and the role as queen, the importance of which she never really cared to grasp. She is lost in the court intrigues, thrown into the lion’s den at the age of fifteen, not knowing who to trust and eventually relying on the wrong people who would abuse her friendship and ruin her reputation in the public eye. In that way, Zweig shows Marie Antoinette as a political pawn, forced into a role that, because of her personality, she was unfit to fulfill, yet by no fault of her own. He does not judge Marie Antoinette in the light of history, he merely analyzes her character and actions within the world and the circumstances surrounding her, very much like in a play.

Unlike many biographers before him and some after him, Zweig does not try to hide the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Graf Fersen or describe it as an innocent friendship. He fully grants the queen who is trapped in a marriage of political convenience her right to a fulfilling love life. Zweig is appalled at the insinuation that Marie Antoinette should be accused of having tried to conceal the relationship out of fear and false sanctimoniousness. She, who had never been a coward and never allowed any convention to break her will.

According to Zweig, Marie Antoinette’s greatest mistake largely contributing to her downfall was that she mingled into politics without understanding it or being interested in it. She merely did it to distribute favors, to satisfy her courtiers and perhaps, like in a childish game, to prove to them as well as to herself the power and influence she held over her husband.

Zweig implies that as a female royal consort, Marie Antoinette did not achieve the extraordinary. She did not guide her husband in a way that might have prevented the revolution. Yet, it was the revolution that brought this fact more to light than anything else. After all, so Zweig, Maria Theresia did not want her daughter to mingle into public affairs. If criticism would arise, Maria Theresia would have preferred for it not to fall upon her daughter but on some minister, who could be held accountable.

Zweig portrays the queen as the maker of her own fate but stresses that she is mostly a victim of circumstances. Those circumstances were beyond her control and understanding and to a certain extend also beyond her care. Yet, in her darkest hour, when she is personally attacked and under scrutiny, she shows her strength and dignity. Zweig does not fail to mention that even certain members of royalty used that opportunity to settle a personal account with Marie Antoinette.

In this moment, Zweig portrays her more as a queen than ever stating that beside all her shortcomings, she possessed incredible courage. The revolutionary trial against her is a sham, attempting to frame Marie Antoinette in the most appalling manner. Yet, she proves her wit and escapes all judicial subtlety and calculation. When she is asked by the judge if she regrets that the right of the people have cost her son the throne, she responds that she would never regret anything for her son if it served his country. Zweig salutes Marie Antoinette for not opening herself to the attack while at the same time emphasizing her son’s birthright and the role of the Monarchy by calling France “his” country. This scene gives an interesting insight into Zweig’s own state of mind. This is perhaps less a proof to reveal Zweig as monarchist but rather shows his disgust with the French Revolution and his refusal to see it as a glorious event. He underlines the cruelty of public opinion that shamed the royal family with the worst kind of propaganda. Zweig might have written those passages reflecting upon his own experiences with the power of such vilification over the public mind.

Zweig, although far from calling Marie Antoinette an exemplary queen, does not judge her in the retrospective of post-monarchist democratic politics. He focuses on his portrayal of a woman faced with the inhumanity of her judgment and her judges. In that sense, Zweig stays true to one of his leading topics. In doing so, he naturally becomes apologetic of Marie Antoinette and somehow glorifies her image.

Zweig is undoubtedly subjective but he looks at the historical background from a point of view that is in itself fascinating and worth reflecting upon. He wrote the biography on Marie Antoinette in 1932, about 140 years after her death but within this comparatively short time, the world had seen incredible changes. Stefan Zweig uses Marie Antoinette for his own reminiscence of a past that was to him irrevocably lost, while facing a future he was not looking forward to. The comparison of the terror of the French Revolution with the terror that was yet to come in Zweig’s own country and that he partly anticipated, shows his inner turmoil. As such, the novel is in some way equally a testimony to Zweig’s own time which creates an interesting multifaceted nature.

Zweig has been criticized for writing a pamphlet of redemption, portraying the queen as a victim of her circumstances, giving future writers a justification for a similar romantic notion culminating in publicized fiction like the film by Sophia Ford Coppola.

A historian might consider himself an apt critic of such work but it might also lead him to reflect upon his own scientific judgement. Finally, critical observations aside, the writing itself is nothing but superb and clearly shows Zweig’s mastery of the German language which makes the book a pleasure to read.


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