All that most of us know of Marie Antoinette is that she told the starving populace to eat cake and lost her head while Madame Tussaud was knitting. Antonia Fraser offers instead a picture of a courageous woman, more sinned against than sinning. Born in 1755, the tiny arch-duchess of Austria was sent to France at 14 to marry the sulky dauphin. She was childless for eight years, for Louis preferred select ladies of the night, hunting and boozing. The little girl grew into first a beauty with a weakness for gambling and later, when Louis XVI had at last done his duty, a loving mother who "preferred domesticity to diamonds". But she was only too aware that she was sitting on a powder keg of popular resentment at the French aristocracy. Nor did she ever tell the people to eat cake – that "lethal phase" was first uttered by Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV. Fraser brings the times to life with wonderful details.
Best of the Rest:
Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs. It was a great new experience to be able to listen to the latest, and one of the best, Discworld novel, made possible by Isis's rapid production. Unabridged, 9hrs 37 mins, £24.99; Isis freephone 0800 7315637
If I Don't Know, written and read by Wendy Cope. Poems in a new mood, thoughtful, accepting, sometimes so simple as to seem almost ploddy. Then come the squashed bananas and contented cabbages. Faber/ Penguin,1hr 15mins, £8.99.Reuse content