Carolly Erickson’s “The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette: A Novel”

This book could have been superb.  Carolly Erickson knows her stuff not only on Marie-Antoinette, but on the whole historical period in general.  This is quite evident but not fully taken advantage of.  Erickson perhaps had a good plan and layout of her story, keeping to certain accuracies and adding in fiction where appropriate.  Unfortunately, Erickson’s problem is at the very core of novel writing.

Erickson basically seems unable to write a novel.  She writes in the form of a diary – such a form is restrictive in the first place and Erickson may have felt that writing in Marie-Antoinette’s voice instead of her own could give her a justified excuse to write in a bland, amatuerish way throughout the whole novel (as if Marie-Antoinette was unintelligent!)  It doesn’t work.  I wouldn’t believe in a million years that the French queen would have written in her diary in such a mind-numbing, boring way.  Surely she had more command of language than Erickson makes out.  I could not believe how childish it all was.  This fictional diary starts when she is twelve years of age, right until her death, but the difference in voice between that time is minimal. 

Historical fiction has a hard time of it, as many people interested in history want to read them, only to find that the fiction is not historically accurate, or things have been drastically changed.  Some people accept this for what it is, but one of the main reasons why I forgive writers like Philippa Gregory for her soap opera drama like novels is because she describes the times so well.  You can dive into the world of yesterday and read what the world could have been like mentally and physically.  This is another drawback of this novel.  It’s a diary.  Why would Marie-Antoinette feel the need to explain customs, fashion, nature, science, etc.?  She wouldn’t, and doesn’t.

Basically, this novel is a skimming observation of what her life could have been like.  No detail, no deep characterisations.  You learn of three or four of her friends, and though she mentions them often (helped her do her hair, etc.) they have no personalities or interests whatsoever.  I mean this literally – she really does not explain who her friends are, what her relationship is like with them, how much time they spend together, what they talk about, and so on.  Why not have the reader be as attached to these women as she was?  Wouldn’t that make the reader more empathetic?

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  This novel may be a good introduction to anyone who is interested in Marie-Antoinette; it’s accessible and addictive to read (mostly thanks to the diary form as the text is consistently put into addictive chunks).  The depiction of immediate revolution surrounding her sphere is quite vivid and horrifying and although we care not an ounce for any of the characters, we can still take away the horrifying things that happened to them, even if it is only for the actual horrific events in themselves.  Marie-Antoinette is an interesting figure in any form, so anything about her will be exciting to read.  It’s just The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette: A Novel may do the least justice on her character and her life.  You should look elsewhere.

Score: **********

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