The Lacemaker and the Princess

The Lacemaker and the Princess is a historical novel set in France in 1788. It involves real characters, including the royal family. Our heroine, Isabelle, is made up, although the author explains that there could very well have been a girl like her in 1788 France.

Isabelle has been making lace since she was 4 years old; she’s now 11. Her mother is a lacemaker, as is her grandmother, and so on. When Isabelle is sent to the palace to deliver lace, she manages to meet the queen—Marie Antoinette—who asks her to be a playmate for the princess. The queen believes that it’s important for Therese to play with normal children, to not always put on the airs of a princess.

It’s kind of a sham, though—Therese and her playmates are dressed in identical clothes, made by the royal dressmakers even if they are plain in design. They play in a model farm where everything is sweet-smelling and idyllic. Any reader who knows even a little bit about history knows that this is all going to be short-lived. The king, portrayed as a weak ruler unable to make a decision, is running his country into the ground. Revolution is brewing.

Isabelle finds herself caught between her family and her friend, between the comforts of the palace and the inequality she sees around her, between the fear and distrust of the townspeople and a queen she loves.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Squick Factor

If your kid has issues with vermin, this might not be the book for them. Lice and fleas are commonplace. Even in the palace, rats fight loudly in the corners all night. It’s good insight into the time period, but it comes up pretty frequently and it’s pretty gross to modern sensibilities.


Isabelle’s Grandmere is pretty awful. She’s nasty and angry and never has a nice word to say. She always tells Isabelle how useless she is. She abuses her emotionally and physically. Then she has a stroke and is just another mouth to feed until she dies.

Isabelle’s father is dead and her mother is crippled—her hands swell, making it very hard for her to make lace. She’s often drugged up on laudanum. She means well, but is also frequently pretty nasty to Isabelle. In the end, though, their relationship is better.

Isabelle’s brother, George, is her hero. At 14, he works in the stables—his work day is so long that he just lives there. He does his best to watch out for his sister, warning her about how the tides are turning. He serves the role of conscience.

Therese desperately wants her parents to pay attention to her, but they are frequently busy and distracted. Her brother, the Dauphin, is dying. Her youngest brother is 3, and he’s adorable and sweet.


What does it mean to be friends? Therese is used to ordering people around, including her friends. She tries to exact a promise from Isabelle to stay with her no matter what, even against the wishes of Isabelle’s family. However, in her very self-centered way, Therese does try to do nice things for her friends. The relationship always seems a little twisted, though.


The differences among the classes are really striking. Isabelle lives in a way most of us can’t imagine—she is often hungry, her home is cold and dirty, she’s been working hard every day since she was 4. And yet her family is wealthy compared to many. They never go for long without food. The poor are truly destitute, starving and working themselves literally to death. There are no safety nets—when Isabelle’s grandmere has a stroke and her mother’s fingers are too swollen to work, Isabelle’s lacemaking is the only thing that keeps them from being thrown into the street to starve.

The royalty, on the other hand, live an incredible life of luxury. Despite the rats and the fleas and the stench of human waste, the queen has new ribbons for every day. She has more dresses than she can count. Their table is piled with more food than they could possibly eat and their utensils are made of gold. The queen is somewhat bothered by this—she would prefer to dress plainly, and does when not under the eyes of the court. But she is expected to act and look like a queen, and so she does. She is watched every moment by members of the court trying to curry favor. They watch her eat, they watch her dress, they watch her walk through the halls. Being royal means being on display. She also has no idea of the money that goes into her dresses or just how badly off the peasants are.

George makes sure that Isabelle sees the contrast. He takes her on trips to see the poverty in the countryside. She resents these lessons—what does he expect her to do? Her conflicted feelings are easy to identify with.

God and Religion

The king rules because God ordained it. Therefore, you don’t question it. At all. If God ordained that you should be poor? Tough luck for you. Deal with it. Serve in your role.

However, that’s used mostly as an excuse. Therese has plans to make Isabelle and her other playmate into ladies once she is married off and has her own court. So upward mobility is an option, and it’s painfully obvious that downward mobility is a reality. But there’s a lot of lip service given to doing what God wants of you.

Violence and Death

Isabelle is thrown from a horse and hits her head really hard. She’s in and out of consciousness for a while. Before she’s anywhere near cured, her grandmere has a stroke and Isabelle returns home to provide for her mother and grandmere. She doesn’t actually get much sympathy for a really nasty injury.

When the revolution comes, and of course it comes, it’s violent. The peasants rise up and march on the palace. It’s scary, because the reader is seeing it from inside the palace.

In the end, a lot of people die, although many of the deaths happen offscreen. Grandmere dies. The young Dauphin dies of tuberculosis. The mother of Therese’s other playmate dies and the girl grieves. Then, in the uprising, Isabelle’s brother George dies a hero of the revolution. Her friend Pierre, also about her age, never returns and is assumed dead. She sees the bodies of young guards who were killed protecting the king. In the epilogue, we learn that the king and queen were executed and the youngest son died of tuberculosis. Therese is the only royal prisoner to survive the Reign of Terror.


One of the queen’s worst sins is that she’s from Austria. They call her “the Austrian woman” in French, which sounds similar to a rude insult. Many awful things are said about her, but most of them are untrue. Still, she gets the blame for a lot of the thing that are wrong in France.


This is a compelling story with lots of themes that have parallels to modern politics and social issues. I’m not sure most kids would pick up on that, but I found it interesting. I appreciated how nuanced the situation was. Therese is kind of a snot, and the excesses of court are obvious, but the royals are also in an almost impossible situation. Those who revolt have really good reasons, but with blood on their minds there’s no room for negotiation and compromise that might have prevented many deaths. It’s a vivid insight into a time that is much like ours yet also very different. It’s probably suitable for precocious readers starting around age 9 or 10, and will be interesting to all ages up to adults.


The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Published in 2007 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Read my daughter’s library book from school


  1. This sounds interesting! It appears to the writer stayed true to the impressions I got when I read several biographies of Marie Antoinette a few years ago. (I like to read the history of places before I visit.) Historical novels are a great way to make fiction come alive and be more than dates and names!

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