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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Marie Antoinette

Evelyne Lever

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To purchase Marie Antoinette

Title: Marie Antoinette
Author: Evelyne Lever
Genre: Biography
Written: (Eng.: 2000)
Length: 309 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Marie Antoinette - US
Marie Antoinette - UK
Marie Antoinette - Canada
Marie-Antoinette - France
  • The Last Queen of France
  • Translated by Catherine Temerson
  • PLEASE NOTE that this is a radically abridged version of the French version (originally published in 1991). The 1996 French edition has 736 pages. See also our brief rant about this transformation of the text.
  • Several of the sources listed in the bibliography are from later than the original 1991 publication date, suggesting that either the French edition was revised (perhaps for the 1996 paperback edition) or that these new materials were taken into account specifically for the English-language version. Note that the 1991 French edition is also listed in the bibliography of the English-language version (twice) .
  • Note that the blurbs on the back cover (which are also given on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicity page for the book) all are "Praise for the French edition". Note that the English edition bears only a faint resemblance to that praised French edition. (See our brief rant about this.)
  • Nowhere in the book is there mention of the fact that the French and English editions differ markedly (or, in fact, that they differ at all).

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Our Assessment:

B : solid though unexceptional overview of a fascinating life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times B- 20/7/2000 Cara Mia di Massa
The New Yorker B+ 7/8/2000 Francine du Plessix Gray
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/2/2001 P.N.Furbank
The NY Times Book Rev. C 16/7/2000 Amanda Foreman
TLS . 23/8/91 John Rogister

  NOTE that the (favourable) TLS review refers to the French edition, which differs markedly from the radically cut English version that the other reviews refer to. Note also that the blurbs on the back cover (which can also be found on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicity page for the book) all are "Praise for the French edition". Note that the English edition bears only a faint resemblence to that praised French edition.

  See also our brief rant regarding the transformation and presentation of the text.

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Marie Antoinette comes across as both a heroine and a debaucher, a lover and a foe of politics, but Lever never adds up the pieces or distinguishes among them. And thus Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France suffers from a near-fatal case of split personality, as a mix of fact and supposition, with little room for reasoned psychological analysis." - Cara Mia di Massa, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is to Lever's credit that she offers a more balanced view of the Queen than most previous biographers, and lucidly analyzes those character flaws which helped to precipitate her downfall." - Francine du Plessix Gray, The New Yorker

  • "(I)t is written, at certain points at least, in what you might call a "historical novel" style, with its resort to the paintbox and its rhetorical questions. " - P.N. Furbank, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) biography that is all bias and no reflection rarely succeeds. Lever has no imaginative sympathy for her subject and little understanding of what governs human behavior." - Amanda Foreman , The New York Times Book Review

  Regarding the English "version" of the book:
  • "It has been reduced to about half the French original and, in the course of cutting and translation, has suffered a severe dumbing-down, with impoverishing effect on the book's psychological nuances. The American version -- chopped up, apparently for some hypothetically inattentive reader, into short, seven-to-nine page chapters -- feels, in its more condescendingly simplistic passages, like a Marie-Antoinette primer for high-school students." - Francine du Plessix Gray, The New Yorker

  • "Here and there one finds some paragraphs reproduced from Marie-Antoinette, but essentially Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France is a different book. The Marie-Antoinette of 1991 is sober and copiously documented (...) and its prose has a touch of traditional elegance, faintly echoing Saint-Simon. The Last Queen is a different affair." - P.N. Furbank, The New York Review of Books

  • "The mystery is why Farrar, Straus & Giroux should publish this book now, since it came out in France in 1991, and even in that country has been superseded by new research. American readers have waited this long for a new biography of Marie Antoinette; they may as well wait a bit longer." - Amanda Foreman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       PLEASE NOTE that this review refers to the English version of Marie Antoinette, a radically cut translation of Evelyne Lever's French original -- and, for all intents and purposes, a completely different book. See also our brief rant regarding this transformation of the text.

       The story of Marie-Antoinette's life is a fascinating one, and and it has been retold many times over the two centuries since she was executed. Biographies abound, penned by everyone from literary figures such as the Goncourts and Stefan Zweig, to countless historians. Evelyne Lever, an historian who previously wrote a biography of Louis XVI (1985), among others, here offers another account.
       Most of the story is a familiar one. The Austrian princess was the fifteenth child born to Empress Maria Theresa, enjoying a largely carefree and pleasant childhood before being strategically married off and sent off to France when she was fourteen. The marriage to Louis XVI was meant to bring Austria and France closer together. Instead, of course, the French monarchy collapsed, with Marie-Antoinette managing to alienate and offend a vast number of people along the way, helping to speed things along. Ultimately she met the same fate as her husband as the revolutionaries lopped off her head
       Lever recounts all the grand (and not so grand) episodes from the queen's life: from Louis XVI's conjugal difficulties (it took him a long time to get the hang of the sexual act, as is described here in embarrassing detail) to the bizarre diamond necklace affair which reflected so badly on the queen to her love for Count Fersen to the attempted flight of the royal family once the monarchy was doomed and finally to Marie-Antoinette's ignominious end.
       The focus of the book is very much on Marie-Antoinette herself, and Lever does a fine job of describing her. With little formal education, and always more interested in enjoying herself (particularly in the company of others) than in study Marie-Antoinette was no intellectual heavyweight. Fortunate to have the Abbé de Vermond as a teacher, she was at least prepared for some of what awaited her in France, but she was never well-suited for the bizarre court life there.
       Forced to leave her beloved family at a tender age she initially adapted surprisingly well to her new station, despite the fact that her husband was not a particularly impressive specimen himself. Louis XVI loved the hunt and "enjoyed playing Vulcan, making the occasional key or a padlock" in his own forge, but proved spectacularly inadequate in fulfilling his duties as a husband (at least for a while -- Marie-Antoinette did eventually give birth to four children). Marie-Antoinette just wanted to enjoy herself, and this was the root of much of her unpopularity. Vivacious and curious she was an occasionally popular figure, but she had no sense of how to use and influence public sentiment and when public opinion turned against her she was unable to do anything about it. She never understood how to use the court-sycophants and her naiveté in these matters cost her dearly.
       Lever does a good job of introducing life first in the Austrian imperial household, and then at the French court. Though Lever only discusses some of the facets of life as a member of the French royal family it is enough to suggest how difficult life there was, constantly in the public eye. The many complex personality conflicts are also explored, from Marie-Antoinette's relationship with her scheming and loving mother and with Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry, to her many (often questionable) friends and enemies at court.
       Marie-Antoinette's family life, and specifically her relationship with her husband and then her children is also presented fairly well, as is the relationship with the love of her life, the Swedish Count Fersen.
       Individual episodes are also done quite well -- from Marie-Antoinette's patronage of the composer Gluck to the diamond necklace scandal.
       The larger historical context, especially as the revolutionary forces take hold, is less successfully conveyed. Even as it focusses on Marie-Antoinette the book does not adequately explain the spiteful and extreme reactions to the queen (explored in greater detail in, for example, Chantal Thomas' The Wicked Queen (see our review)).
       The sad end of the royal family is also done quite decently, and Lever's book certainly provides a good if not comprehensive overview of the life (and aspects of the times) of Marie-Antoinette. The cuts that were apparently made in transforming the French version of this book into English make for a sometimes bumpy ride -- occasionally it almost seems that the editorial technique employed was simply to cut every other line. There are apparent gaps in the text, and the fuller picture would probably have been preferable, but Lever's book is quite a good read even in this form. Marie-Antoinette's story is a riveting one, no matter how it is told, and while this is not an exemplary version of it is certainly a good one.

       Brief rant regarding the English version of this book:

       Marie Antoinette is an upsetting book -- not Evelyne Lever's work, but rather what Farrar, Straus & Giroux have made of it. Lever originally wrote her biography in French, and it was published in 1991. A comprehensive work, it comes to 736 pages in the (revised ?) 1996 edition.
       In 2000 Farrar, Straus & Giroux published a work in English by Evelyne Lever, also titled Marie Antoinette. There are clues that the English version (MA 2) is not simply a translation of the French version (MA 1). For one there are all those missing pages: even if the French use much bigger print that could hardly account for the French book being more than twice as thick as the English one. Lever's copyright in MA 2 also says "© 2000", not 1991. And Evelyne Lever's Marie-Antoinette (1991) -- i.e. MA 1 -- is listed in the bibliography for MA 2, both under "Other Works" and "Principal Biographies of Marie Antoinette".
       It is, in fact, pretty clear that MA 2 is a completely new book, a so radically abridged version of MA 1 that the two can not even be compared. Which, in and of itself, isn't a problem. Simplified versions of biographies are not uncommon -- think of Leon Edel's Henry James-biography, which comes in a comprehensive multi-volume version and an abridged one. However, nowhere in MA 2 does it state that it is (or, for that matter, is not) a different version of MA 1. It is, however, implied that MA 2 is just an English version of MA 1 -- a work of the same title (well, with a "-" between the Marie and the Antoinette) and a date of 1991 is listed under "by the same author", and on the back cover there are blurbs of "Praise for the French edition".
       Such deception is, of course, contemptible. A small author's (or editor's or publisher's) note at the beginning of the text explaining what the reader was being presented with would have been the least that they could have done.
       What is as worrisome is what was done to the book in the first place. Readers and authors have always been accorded little respect from publishers, perhaps deservedly so. Foreign literature, especially, is maltreated by almost all publishers and editors who get their hands on it (and note that in America there are very few hands reaching out for any sort of foreign literature in any case). Translation is the worst outrage that can be perpetrated against literature, but often a necessary one. What is beyond the pale is the cutting of the actual text that is also so common: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Juan Goytisolo's Marks of Identity, most of Murakami Haruki's work, including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (see our review), and countless other major and minor works have been ruthlessly cut in the English versions, an incomprehensible approach to publishing that continues to thrive.
       Lever's work is non-fiction, a type of work that is perhaps even more easily damaged by being cut. We have not had the opportunity to compare MA 2 with MA 1, and it is possible that the truncated English is, in fact, the superior one: fewer facts, less information, fewer explanations ... sure, why shouldn't that improve a book ? Farrar, Straus & Giroux may have had good reasons for cutting the book down to size (though the savings in production costs were obviously not passed down to consumers -- even at just over 300 pages the list price is a hefty 30 dollars US). We suspect, however, that they simply had little faith in American readers and thought a dumbed-down version was likely to have greater appeal -- a plausible and (economically) justifiable explanation.
       Publishing is a business, and perhaps one should not fault a publisher for trying to design the version of a book most likely to succeed, regardless of how radically one must transform a text to do that. American consumers can no longer expect any semblance of truth in advertising (or the infamous blurbs on the covers of books) and so the presentation of this text as the English version of an acclaimed French book (despite the fact that it is almost literally only a shadow of the original) is probably an acceptable deception. The fat, true-to-the-original translation would probably have sold fewer copies. Looking at the bottom line Farrar, Straus & Giroux probably did all the right things (though maybe the way to go would have been a comic-book version ...).
       Somehow, however, we suspect that it is only the correct decision in the short term. Readers might actually prefer to know what exactly it is they are buying (which is surely not the case with this book). More importantly: books themselves certainly deserve more respect -- something that they are almost never treated with, especially if they were originally written in a foreign language. When publishers don't treat their wares with respect then readers won't respect those wares either -- and eventually they won't buy them. Americans' apparent distaste for foreign literature is surely largely grounded in publishers' shoddy presentation of it (bad translations (made by poorly paid translators) that are radically cut, etc.).
       Or maybe the publishers are right. After all, they're all doing so well, without a care in the world, looking forward to such a bright future .....

       Note that Lever is also not blameless in this fiasco: she apparently agreed to the cuts. As MA 2 "is her first book to be published in the United States" (so the jacket-copy) she was perhaps persuaded to take these desperate measures in order to conquer a new market. We wish her better luck next time.

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Marie Antoinette:
  • St. Martin's Griffin publicity page. Please note that the review-blurbs on this page refer to the French edition of this work, a version that differs markedly from the radically abridged English version.
  • Information from frenchculture.org
Reviews: Marie-Antoinette: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French historian Evelyne Lever is the author of numerous biographies.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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