MARIE ANTOINETTE by Joan Haslip, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 306 pp. Illustrated. $19.95 BIOGRAPHER Joan Haslip claims that her first instinct, when asked to write a life of Marie Antoinette, ``was to refuse to add yet another volume to those which already fill the shelves of public libraries ...'' Daughter of the autocratic Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the spoiled, charming, Viennese princess married off as a teen-ager to the future king of France, became a hated symbol of extravagance (``Madame Deficit'') to some, but to others, a symbol of innocence unjustly martyred and maligned.
It is hard not to pity this hapless woman, who went to the guillotine in October 1793, some nine months after the execution of her husband, Louis XVI. Yet Marie's extravagance was a convenient focus for discontent, in contrast to Louis's efforts to reform and liberalize his kingdom. As the royal family became increasingly hemmed in by the revolution, they had to decide whether to remain in Paris or leave. By pushing for the fateful flight to Varennes in 1791, Marie unwittingly undermined their tenuous, but perhaps still tenable position as constitutional monarchs.
Joan Haslip has a special feel for things Viennese. She examines Marie Antoinette's character in light of her upbringing in carefree Vienna. Haslip's Marie is frivolous, inexperienced, but no mere innocent: ``Like all Maria Theresa's daughters,'' Haslip speculates, ``she had a latent wish to dominate.... Feeling herself to be superior to her husband, she thought she could dominate him and, blinded by her pride, believed she could control the machine of state, which was far beyond her powers.''
Haslip's gift for delineating personality is evident throughout this lively, evocative book, particularly in her sharply drawn portraits of Louis's brothers, who would later return to the throne as Louis XVIII and Charles X. Her crisp exposition and ability to enter into the intrigues of a bygone age make her accounts of such complicated events as the Diamond Necklace affair as readable and cogent as any. Indeed, Haslip's novelistic style and narrative panache maycause some readers to wonder about the accuracy of her scholarship. Clearly, Haslip is a writer of popular biographies and not a scholar, but her research is reasonably sound and her feel for people, personalities, and politics is shrewd, entertaining, and thought-provoking.