Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Lavish and sad are words that describe Marie Antoinette's life. In this Royal Diary, Kathryn Lasky takes readers inside the palaces to experience what it was like to be a princess and then Queen of France in the 1700s.
Her diary is filled with a young girl's feelings about her arranged marriage. She describes a French Court dominated by intricate rules of etiquette and protocol and excessive attention to fashion and grooming.
While Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, knew little about how to rule a country, they reveled in the excess of their lifestyle. Parties, frivolous gambling, expensive jewels, and elegant gowns where what the royals busied themselves with while outside the gates of the palace hunger and poverty gripped the people of France. Resentment led to revolution, and Marie Antoinette and her husband were executed by guillotine as "enemies of the state."
Evidence of Kathryn Lasky's ability to make history and historical figures come to life can be found on every page of Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles. This account of a princess's life can best be summed up in this Lasky comment. "She was so pretty and she was in so many ways so powerless. There was much promise and it all ended in disaster. To me, Marie Antoinette personified all the best and the worst things about being a princess."
"I hardly know what I am anymore. Am I a child? Am I a woman? Am I, what am I? I think sometimes I am just an instrument who happens to resemble a human being but serves everyone else's purposes. I do not know what to do or what to be." When Marie Antoinette writes these words in her diary, she is one month shy of her fifteenth birthday.
Kathryn Lasky's fictionalized diary of the "Archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, daughter of Maria Theresa of Habsburg, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nations, and the late Emperor Francis of Lorraine," offers readers insight into the young teen who would someday be France's most famous queen. Hairstyles, fashion, dancing lessons, sledding parties, and horseback riding are the everyday events that fill the pages of Antonia's diary. But her diary also discloses the private, behind-the-scenes secret life of royalty. Glamour and privilege that are conspicuous to the public dissolve rapidly as Antonia confesses her most heart-wrenching secrets to her diary. Readers discover a girl who is not much different from their friends and classmates-or even themselves.
From the beginning of her diary, Antonia anticipates her inevitable marriage to Louis Auguste, the heir to the French throne. But it is only gradually that she-and her readers-realize the monumental changes that marriage will precipitate in her life. Like birds on the windowsill, readers hear French hairdressers complain about Antonia's hairline, watch French dressmakers prepare china dolls to serve as fashion models, observe lessons in the latest dances, and read over the princess's shoulder as she perfects her reading and writing — in French. We realize that when the Empress, whom her children may not see for two weeks at a time, insists that Antonia wears the family's finest precious jewels to the opera, it is not out of love for her daughter but because a stunning Antonia will positively impact the impending merger-by-marriage of the Holy Roman Empire and France.
As the wedding contracts are finalized, Antonia begins to comprehend the drastic losses she will soon experience. More than likely, she will never again see her family. She will be isolated from them by lengthy, dangerous, and seldom undertaken overland expeditions. Her clothing — undergarments, jewels, stockings, shoes — must be left behind when she dashes naked from one room across the border into a room on the French side, where she will be clothed with new French finery. Even her name will be stripped from her when she signs the marriage agreement: Renamed Marie Antoinette, Antonia will be the French Dauphine or future Queen, as well as a teen, married to a husband she has never met.
What Marie Antoinette discovers in the Palace of Versailles, besides disgusting personal hygiene, is a honeycomb of rules and regulations, a hierarchy of lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, who gossip and scheme viciously. As they conspire against her, Marie Antoinette perceives that she does have a friend and ally-her new husband. By exploring their hobbies and sharing their interests-locks and keys for Louis Auguste and outdoor activities, such as throwing snowballs, picnicking, and wading in the fountains for Marie Antoinette — these two teens grow to care about each other. With wistful foreshadowing, Marie Antoinette writes in her diary, "I cannot help but think of the fun that Louis Auguste and I could have if we had been born just ordinary people. An ordinary boy and an ordinary girl."
Thinking About the Book
- Why is Marie Antoinette's mother so interested in seeing that her daughter becomes the Queen of France?
- If you, too, lived in the Palace at Versailles, do you think you would want Marie Antoinette as a friend? Why or why not?
- Why is it so important to the King Louis XV that Marie Antoinette speak to Madame du Barry? Why is it equally important to the Princess that she not address du Barry?
- Almost every diary entry has Marie Antoinette writing something about the many rules of etiquette, customs, and fashions of the French Court. What surprised you most about how the Princess was expected to look and dress?
- Would you want Marie Antoinette's mother as your own? Explain.
- Explain why Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, were executed.
- Marie Antoinette was fond of creating lists: things she needed to learn, things she wanted to write about, things her mother wanted to be. Make a list of five words that describe Marie Antoinette and five words that describe her husband Louis. Compare and discuss these lists of words created by each member of your discussion group.
- On January 14, 1769, Empress Maria Theresa reprimands her daughter for neglecting her music lessons saying their empire is the "center of the best music in the entire world, Vienna is where all the greatest musicians live and study and work." Listen to some of the music Antonia might have heard in Vienna. Who were the great musicians of that time period? For more information, see the Historical Note at the back of Marie Antoinette's diary. Create a display of classical composers and Vienna during Antonia's life.
- There are many French words spread throughout Marie Antoinette's diary. Do some research to find out what each of these words means.
- Marie Antoinette lived in two worlds, both artificial fairylands — palaces in which only appearances counted. Research both cities and design a travel brochure for both cities based on the information you discover. Which city is your first choice?
- Look at the rhyme that was meant to describe Marie Antoinette (September 10, 1770). Create a rhyme that describes another character in this book. Share the rhyme with your discussion group and see if they can figure out the person you have portrayed.
- Marie Antoinette and her family were executed during the French Revolution. Find out more about the guillotine machine that was used to behead them. How do you feel about capital punishment? Examine the pros and cons then debate the issue with your friends.
- Henry David Thoreau, a well-known writer, once said, "Wherever men [or women] have lived there is a story to be told, and it depends chiefly on the story-teller or historian whether it is interesting or not." Do you think that Kathryn Lasky, the writer of Marie Antoinette's diary, succeeded as a story-teller in making the life of the Princess interesting? Explain.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.