- The Good: European biographical history that reads like a story
- The Bad: Conjectures and theories presented as facts
- The Literary: Focuses on the epistolary nature of communication
In late eighteenth-century Austria, Maria Theresa, the only woman to ever inherit and rule the vast Habsburg Empire, improved the education and lives of her subjects, battled Frederick the Great, and had sixteen children during her reign. Three of her daughters rose to fame and fortune: the talented Maria Christina, governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands; spirited Maria Carolina, the queen of Naples; and the youngest, Marie Antoinette, the glamorous, albeit tragic, queen of France.
Set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War, endless smallpox outbreaks, the French Revolution, and eventually Napoleon Bonapart, this book covers a wide geography of Europe over several generations of Habsburgs. Family politics, national politics, wars, treaties, broken treaties, uprisings, and revolutions—it’s a lot of history to absorb.
Normally I find this sort of history presented as a list of dates and battles terribly dull, but luckily, Goldstone so hones her craft of narrative storytelling that I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it each evening. Once you get a handle on the key family players and dynamics, the rest of the history is grounded from a Habsburg perspective, further allowing a history-newbie to understand what’s going on.
Focusing on the drama and lacking citations (the only sources are quotes), it’s clear this is a pop-history book, great for someone like me with little to no recall of these seemingly distant historical events. At times, it’s almost soap-opera dramatic in the intrigue, and surely there is some liberty taken in who was sleeping with whom and the modern medical diagnoses of these historical figures. That being said, this is now my favorite history book.
In addition to the central figures of the Habsburgs, I better understand the relationship between the American colonies’ revolution against Britian and its impacts on European politics. And I find the stories of many small players, typically nobodies who rose through the ranks through luck or con, wholly fascinating; in particular Count Frederick William Haugwitz, Madame de Pompadour, Jeanne de Valois, and Lady Emma Hamilton.
Highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t think they like history!
“Long live our Lady the King!”