Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: A Day With Marie Antoinette by Hélène Delalex

A Day With Marie Antoinette by Hélène Delalex is a beautifully crafted, intimate look at the life and legend of Marie Antoinette as told through the objects, places and people that defined her story: the furniture, paintings, etchings, lavish rooms and gardens of Versailles where she spent most of her ultimately tragic life are highlighted in this concise, charming overview of Marie Antoinette.

Hélène Delalex's text is succinct and entertaining all the way through. I didn't always agree with her interpretations (namely regarding the Fersen affair, as regular readers may have already guessed!) but there is a clear passion for Marie Antoinette and her times that shines through in every page. Readers already familiar with Marie Antoinette's story won't necessarily find anything new in terms of biographical information, but since the book seems designed to familiarize readers with Marie Antoinette and introduce them to her personality and life, this isn't really an issue. Accompanying Delalex's text are quotes from a myriad of different sources, including letters written by Marie Antoinette and her mother; published memoirs of her contemporaries; quotes from biographers and historians, including the Goncourt brothers and the delightful Pierre de Nolhac, and more. The quotes are all perfectly chosen, never feeling unnecessary or misplaced in the book.

The book itself is divided into chapters, all of which are defined by the queen's status in relation to the topic discussed in each section. The 'Queen of Taste' chapter, for example, talks about Marie Antoinette's taste in decor and design; while 'Queen of Pleasures' takes a look at Marie Antoinette's intimate circle of friends and favorites. Some of the chapters are further divided into sub-sections in cases where a particular topic is highlighted. During 'Queen of Beauty,' for example, the Diamond Necklace Affair is discussed in the sub-section "Queen of Diamonds."

A Day with Marie Antoinette is lavishly illustrated and designed. I'm a sap for great book design and this book went the extra mile with its cover (the back, not pictured, is even more beautiful; there's also a hard matching slipcover to keep your book in nice condition) and its interior layout, which includes Trianon-inspired decorative borders, quotes placed in just the right position to jump out at you without being distracting to the main text, and more.

The photographs of Versailles, Trianons and personal items related to the queen take up most of the illustrated space; the photographs are well-taken and for the most part, refreshing views of interiors and details of furniture and decor that aren't normally highlighted in books or other publications. The reproductions of art are all high quality and I was especially delighted to see crisper views of certain paintings that are only available online in lower resolution. In addition to the "greatest hits" of Vigee-Lebrun portraits that are natural to any illustrated book about the queen, there are numerous paintings and illustrations which are rarely published and in some cases never previously published before. If the text didn't provide you with anything new, the illustrations and photographs will certainly fill that quota.

The book also includes images that evoke Marie Antoinette as she has appeared (and inspired) pop culture in the past 200 years since her death. Stills from various 'Marie Antoinette' films, some famous fashion designs inspired by the queen, and even modern-day perfumed gloves inspired by the ones created for Marie Antoinette in the 18th century all make an appearance. Their inclusion was refreshing, never over-used, and added to the book's overall well-designed aesthetic.

It's a bit difficult to define A Day With Marie Antoinette. It's not quite a biography, although it does take the reader through her life, trials, and eventually her death. It's not quite a photo book, although it features numerous high quality photos and art reproductions, stylishly arranged and organized throughout the publication. It doesn't go into great detail, but it wasn't really designed to do so--a 'day' is all you really need to read through the book for the first time. (The extra time you spend flipping back to find more details in the interior design, re-read quotes or admire the photographs not counted!) I suppose the book is best described as an illustrated "day guide" to Marie Antoinette; who she was, where she lived, how she lived, how she died--and who she has since become.

The book is currently available from several retailers (including Amazon) and is published by Flammarion. Highly recommended for 'Antoinette' fans, anyone who enjoys well designed books about French history, and anyone taking a trip to Versailles and the Trianons who wants to learn more about the woman whose presence continues to haunt the palace and its gardens. You may end up wanting to spend more than a "day" with Marie Antoinette after all!

[I was provided a review copy of this book by the publisher.]

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