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Summary and book reviews of In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone

In the Shadow of the Empress

The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters

by Nancy Goldstone

In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy  Goldstone X
In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy  Goldstone
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  • Published:
    Sep 2021, 640 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

The vibrant, sprawling saga of Empress Maria Theresa - one of the most renowned women rulers in history - and three of her extraordinary daughters, including Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen of France.

Out of the thrilling and tempestuous eighteenth century comes the sweeping family saga of beautiful Maria Theresa, a sovereign of uncommon strength and vision, the only woman ever to inherit and rule the vast Habsburg Empire in her own name, and three of her remarkable daughters: lovely, talented Maria Christina, governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands; spirited Maria Carolina, the resolute queen of Naples; and the youngest, Marie Antoinette, the glamorous, tragic queen of France, and perhaps the most famous princess in history.

Unfolding against an irresistible backdrop of brilliant courts from Vienna to Versailles, embracing the exotic lure of Naples and Sicily, this epic history of Maria Theresa and her daughters is a tour de force of desire, adventure, ambition, treachery, sorrow, and glory.

Each of these women's lives was packed with passion and heart-stopping suspense. Maria Theresa inherited her father's thrones at the age of twenty-three and was immediately attacked on all sides by foreign powers confident that a woman would to be too weak to defend herself. Maria Christina, a gifted artist who alone among her sisters succeeded in marrying for love, would face the same dangers that destroyed the monarchy in France. Resourceful Maria Carolina would usher in the golden age of Naples only to face the deadly whirlwind of Napoleon. And, finally, Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen whose stylish excesses and captivating notoriety have masked the truth about her husband and herself for two hundred and fifty years.

Vividly written and deeply researched, In the Shadow of the Empress is the riveting story of four exceptional women who changed the course of history.

The Little One

You are the luckiest of all your sisters and of all princesses.

— Maria Theresa to Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755. Just a year earlier, an overeager American colonial had exceeded his orders and opened fire on a sleeping French reconnaissance unit, rekindling hostilities between England and France. The crisis had driven Maria Theresa into a treaty with Louis XV, arranged surreptitiously through Madame de Pompadour. Thus, it could be argued that, since both her youngest daughter and the Austrian-French alliance came into being at more or less the same moment in history, it was George Washington who put Marie Antoinette on the throne of France.

Toinette, as she was nicknamed (although she was also often referred to simply as "the little one"), was her mother's fifteenth child and youngest daughter. She was exceptionally pretty, all big blue eyes, blond curls, and merry disposition, not unlike Maria Theresa herself as a young ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Throughout her reign, Maria Theresa strove to improve her subjects' lives. She shifted the burden of taxation away from the peasantry by forcing the aristocracy to pay their fair share (a visionary measure without precedent in Austrian history); she introduced smallpox vaccination and did her best to reform healthcare and education; and she modernized the army. But she also had many faults, chief among them her religious intolerance and especially her hatred of Jews and adoption of anti-Semitic policies. Do you think that, ultimately, she deserves to be remembered as a great leader, or does her bigotry disqualify her from that distinction?
  2. Maria Theresa had the very modern problem of having to juggle the responsibilities of...
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BookBrowse Review


Goldstone, an accomplished popular historian of pre-modern queens, depicts the emotions and tense moments of Maria Theresa's life in accessible prose and delightful details, making the reader feel close to the action and presenting the empress as a relatable, real person. In the Shadow of the Empress shines a well-deserved light on one of the most extraordinary female rulers in European history, and shows that common misconceptions and the fog of time don't have to obscure the lives of mesmerizing figures...continued

Full Review Members Only (967 words).

(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

A vivid exploration of four female royals who altered the course of history.

The Times (UK)
A virtuoso performance, Goldstone at the peak of her creative abilities…The interlocking lives of these formidable women are played out against a turbulent century of social unrest, revolution and war…the depth of her research and the acuity of her insights are outstanding.

Compelling and redefining…[An] expert account of the lives of the extraordinary Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and three of her most illustrious daughters, Maria Christina, Maria Carolina, and Marie Antoinette. Goldstone employs colorful secondary-source accounts and strong, character-driven narration to present fresh insights into the personalities, attitudes, gifts, and fatal flaws of this family of powerful, now legendary women.

Library Journal
Meticulously researched…A dizzying and dazzling foray into the intricacies of 18th-century European history…A masterful look at a long-gone era.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Goldstone vividly depicts a resplendent, glittering milieu. Her fast-paced, populous narrative teems with gossip, court intrigue, and head-spinning political machinations…A colorful collection of dynamic, prodigiously researched portraits.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Historian Goldstone recounts in this fascinating saga the personalities and power struggles of Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and three of her daughters...Adding wry humor to her lucid narrative, Goldstone clarifies the era's complex politics and pinpoints how these commanding women helped give shape to modern Europe. This mesmerizing history isn't to be missed.

Author Blurb Kara Cooney, author of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt
Maria Theresa is a study in contrasts. She was an extraordinary female power in a man's world, the creator of a vibrant and warm family life from which daughters were farmed out to the highest-paying prince, and a bold leader brought to her knees by insecurity and fear. Goldstone pulls all the messy, human incongruities of a pugnacious late eighteenth-century Europe together into a page-turner of a book.

Author Blurb Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World
Engrossing historical storytelling, filled with suspense, tantalizing mysteries, intimate family drama, and details of terror, cruelty, courage, and passion, set in the revolutionary cauldron of eighteenth-century Europe.

Author Blurb Kirstin Downey, author of Isabella: The Warrior Queen
Brilliant, delightful, and fun! Centered on the remarkable Austrian empress Maria Theresa and her diverse brood of daughters, this book reveals events engineered by these intelligent and powerful women in all their complexity, ingenuity, and, ultimately, fatal error. Chock full of penetrating modern insights into the psychological failings that bedevil the human condition.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Educational Reforms in the Austrian Empire Under Maria Theresa

Painting of Maria Theresa, Empress of the Holy Roman EmpireBy the mid-1700s, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, had suffered a significant military defeat at the hands of Prussia's King Frederick II. In the aftermath, she sought to modernize and improve her army to match that of her rival, and that included upgrading military education to focus on geography, tactics and history. This began Maria Theresa's commitment to improving education throughout her realm, which continued for another 20 years.

Although she was a fervently devout Catholic, Maria Theresa understood that control of education by the Church, and particularly the Jesuit Order, had resulted in outdated curricula that was of little practical use to her subjects. She responded by ...

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