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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber found its way into my reading list because of the controversial Hilary Mantel lecture I attended a few months ago. When musing on which book she would recommend to the Duchess of Cambridge, Mantel chose Weber’s biography. ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ Mantel said and I knew I just had to read it.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty 1775

It was published sometime ago in 2007 and yet is one of those books that will endure I think as it’s lessons are timeless. It is a hugely original biography and an outstanding piece of work. It tells the story of Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian Queen of France from her childhood in Vienna to her execution in Paris, through the lens of her dresses. What she wore was one of the few things in her life that Marie Antoinette could control. She was completely constrained by her circumstances in the highly formal court of Versailles and Weber charts her rebellions; such as a refusal to wear a corset, her use of male riding clothes, her enormous hairstyle, the pouf, and her adoption of the unstructured dress, the gaulle. What she wore was also one of the few ways Marie Antoinette could be political in a patriarchal regime. However, it was this politicisation of her dress that Marie Antoinette got so wrong. The luxury and ostentation of her court dresses and hairstyles as befitting her royal status were resented by a starving public for the waste of money and even flour (used to powder her hair). Yet, when she turned to less formal styles like the gaulle, she was attacked for ruining the French silk industry. She could not win and at times, I felt huge sympathy for this tragic woman as I read the biography.

Marie Antoinette in a simple dress

Marie Antoinette en chemise (in her simple Gaulle) by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1783

However, at other times I also felt extreme frustration. The particular episode that completely eroded my sympathy for her was, in planning to escape from Paris at the beginning of the revolution, Marie Antoinette foiled her own escape in many ways. At that time, she was wearing the colours of the revolution, blue, white and red to try to show her sympathy for the cause. It was, of course, an expediency and as they planned to escape, the Queen ordered new dresses in the royal white, blacks, purples and yellows, anticipating wearing them abroad after an escape. This raises suspicions in a minor seamstress and her tip-off  was one of the factors in the failure of their escape. This speaks to me of extreme blindness and stupidity and putting narcissism and vanity above your and your family’s personal safety.

This biography shows both a vain and silly Queen, but also a doomed, sad woman, trapped in circumstances beyond her control and  struggling for freedom in the only way she knew how. It allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also shows the power and the danger of being a fashion-plate in the public eye. A warning that is very pertinent to the Duchess of Cambridge as Mantel suggested. My one tip with this biography is that I might have found it a little hard to follow if I didn’t know the basics of the history of the French Revolution. It concentrates on Marie Antoinette obviously and does not linger on explaining some of the important events and personalities like the Flour Wars and Robespierre which are crucial references. This means that, if you have not already, I would recommend reading a general history of the French Revolution first before reading this book so you have a more rounded background overview of the period.

Reading this book has meant I think a little more carefully about what my clothes choices say about me, even though I am far from the public eye!

p.s this video of Caroline Weber explaining some of the ideas behind this book is really interesting.


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The Hatfield Banquet

I went to my first Tudor banquet on Friday at Hatfield House and it was absolutely fantastic! We had been given tickets by my parents-in-law who had won them at a charity event last year.  I had little idea of what to expect, but what we got was a very warm welcome, wonderful entertainment, nice food and a magical setting in the Great Hall.

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The Great Hall, Hatfield House

The Great Hall, Hatfield House

I’d forgotten many traditional songs that I had learnt when I was younger, but as I listened to the players, Greensleeves, Hey Nonny Nonny, and The Boar’s Head all came rushing back. The actors were all beautiful singers as well as highly entertaining. There was also a jester who wowed with his sleight of hand and fire eating. I never quite enjoy magic as much as I should though, because I am always trying to furiously work out how they do it! Knowing that we were just one in a very long line of parties that had been hosted in that beautiful Great Hall made the evening particularly special – there is nothing like a sense of history to put everything in perspective!

This all leads me on nicely to my current reading material, A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. This is the second in series written by Ian Mortimer. The first was a similar guide to Medieval England, which I enjoyed so much that it was very difficult to wait for the paperback version of this next book to be released. But wait I did and it was worth it. These books are such a good, new idea. A cross between a history book and historical fiction, they show you what life would really have been like; what you would smell, what you would say, how you would do things – fascinating! Mortimer has managed to bring the past alive through his research just as Hilary Mantel does – there is extensive research here, but it adds to rather than gets in the way of  your enjoyment. I am going to go back to it now to find out about the state of the roads in Tudor England and I’d thoroughly recommend that you check out this time traveller’s guide as well – it will come in very handy if you happen to go to a Tudor banquet any time soon!

In a month where we as a nation have found Richard III, when there was a discovery of a plague burial ground whilst excavating for the most modern of transport and I personally went to a Tudor banquet, it has shown me that history is anything but bunk!

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

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After seeing Hilary Mantel speak recently, I decided to find out a bit more about her by reading her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. Before this, I’d read snippets in the press about her ‘tragic medical history’ and ‘difficult childhood’. I don’t think those clichés do it anything like justice to be honest now I have read this book.

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Mantel does not pretend that Giving up the Ghost is an autobiography. She freely admits that she has left painful things out, skipped most of her teenage years and glossed over other events. However, what this book is is an extremely moving series of recollections where you, the reader, are plunged into Hilary’s point of view.This is brave because not only is it unflinching in its presentation of herself, but also means strange things that happen are not explained by Hilary the child at the time as she doesn’t understand them at the time and therefore they do not make sense to the reader until later either. This makes it a challenging read at times, but rewarding. I could see in this book the techniques she used to get into Thomas Cromwell’s skin later with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. As always, Mantel’s love of words and skills with marshalling them into compelling sentences is present. She never enters the realms of self-pity which is part of this book’s charm, but her challenges brought tears to my eyes more than once.

The other thing that struck me about this book was the well-trodden but true tale of education allowing Mantel opportunities denied to her parents. This always strikes a chord with me as my own circumstances were similar. This is one of those books that will stay with me I think because it gives such a sense of a person and a life whilst still retaining some secrets; the twinkle in her eye I witnessed in person is very much in evidence here and that is wonderful and inspiring given what she has been through.


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Mantel’s Royal Bodies

Lovely readers, if there are still many of you out there, I am so sorry it has been such a long time since I have posted. Normal service will resume now and hopefully I can win you back! Over the last few months there have been some computer melt-downs, some dissertation angst and Christmas getting in the way of my blogging. However, an event I attended a couple of weeks ago has convinced me to get back in the swing.

You may have heard about the furore caused by Hilary Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books in early February. If not, I almost envy you as it has been everywhere! (see here for a sample of one of the more favourable) Well I, readers, was lucky enough to be there in person, close enough to see the twinkle in her eye in fact! Thanks to my lovely father-in-law, we had managed to get tickets and were treated to a warm, witty and eloquent speech. So much so that I was surprised there was such a fuss about it approximately a week later…but perhaps I am naive.

Before I go on, let me just say that I am actually not a critic of the Duchess of Cambridge: anyone who can rock such perfect black eyeliner is ok by me! My admiration for her was a little dampened by the ‘waity katie’ stage and the lack of gainful employment / direction. However, on the whole, I think she is doing a good job in her new role.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mantel was being a little provocative, but the media have taken the speech out of context in my opinion. The full text is here so you can make up your own mind, but my overall impression was of Mantel warning us not to let history repeat itself. Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn, Diana: they were all Queens or Princesses who came to sorry ends. Their dress and bodies were all scrutinised by an insatiable public and vicious media. ‘We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them…’ Mantel said and we should rewrite the story so perfect Kate is not next.

I left the lecture theatre feeling privileged to have heard such a thought provoking, clever and inspirational woman talk. Mantel’s turn of phrase was immaculate. My particular favourites were: ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ and ‘When we call him (Henry VIII) paranoid, we must acknowledge that he was right to think his enemies were everywhere, though he was increasingly bad at working out who they were. As for depression, he had a great deal to be depressed about…’ Wonderful! I will be putting a print out of the speech in one of my memory boxes to enjoy for years to come.

Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker Prize!

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A big congratulations to the worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize 2012, Hilary Mantel, for her book Bring up the Bodies. I am a big fan of the Cromwell series and will be looking forward to her future work! One of my early posts on Bring up the Bodies is here.

Restoration by Rose Tremain

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Restoration by Rose Tremain

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Restoration by Rose Tremain – somehow I have managed to miss out on this utter gem so far in my reading life and I can’t quite believe what I’ve been missing. This is one of the best historical novels I have ever read and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen others describe it as redefining the whole historical novel genre which I don’t think is an exaggeration. I imagine its impact in the 1980s, when it was first published, was even greater than for me reading it today; being pitched into a personality so thoroughly must have been so new and fresh. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, although very different books to this, use this technique as well and have some similarities – I wonder if Mantel was inspired by Tremain? I wouldn’t be surprised.

The book, for those who have not read it, is about a very ordinary man, Robert Merivel, who, thanks to his father and his talent for playing the fool, ends up living a very extraordinary life at the court of Charles II. Merivel is so stupid, flawed, loveable and wonderful I’m struggling to find an original, suitable adjective! At various different points of the novel I was cringing for him, crying for him, laughing with him and admiring him. Above all other things, he is a genuine person and one of the most life-like characters I have ever read about. He is unstintingly honest with himself (and therefore with the reader) and exposes himself, warts and all in a way which reminded me of Pepys’ diaries.

The main messages I took from the book were that finding your place in the world is important for your self-respect and that a person who trades their integrity for money and comfort is making a Faustian bargain! Thank you Rose Tremain for one of those rare books that really do transform your understanding of good writing. The sequel to Restoration, Merivel: A Man of His Time has just been published and so that is now firmly on my wish list!