Sunday, August 31, 2008

48. Abundance

by Sena Jeter Naslund

This book is subtitled “A Novel of Marie Antoinette,” and is a fictionalized biography narrated by Marie, covering her arrival in France in 1770 at age 14 as the intended bride for the Dauphin through her execution in 1793.

The author says, “The story of Marie Antoinette has fascinated and frightened me since I was a child. To me, it was a reverse fairy tale…” She felt “the historical treatment of Marie Antoinette has been motivated, in part, by the tendency to demonize women…I wanted to explore the complexity of a woman who has been included in the historical picture but usually misrepresented.”

Naslund succeeds in making Marie Antoinette a multifaceted character rathr than the shallow, heartless woman usually depicted by history. Unfortunately, she takes 539 pages to do so, including a lot of detail about the abundance of splendor (flowers, music, opera, theater, gardens, chateaux) in Marie’s life. In contrast, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (on which Naslund’s book is based) covers the same material plus Marie’s pre-France life plus a post-death epilogue in 458 pages – and it has color illustrations and extensive notes, sources, and an index in additional pages.

Both books treat Marie sympathetically, as the neglected youngest daughter and 15th child of powerful Austrian empress Maria Teresa, who was woefully unprepared to be Queen of France. Her initial popularity in France declined as it took over SEVEN years for her marriage to be consummated (neither the Dauphin nor the Dauphine really knew what they were doing) and 11+ for the birth of a son, and of course in those days these things were always blamed on the woman!

Constantly criticized in letters from her mother and mostly ignored by her husband, Marie took up extravagant habits such as gambling, buying numerous dresses, and elaborate hairstyles. Changes she tried to make in court life and her close friendships with women were misinterpreted.

Yet these books also show a Marie Antoinette who did show concern for the common people, ultimately becoming less extravagant and more generous, and she was a loving, caring mother and very brave at her death. Apparently it was easier to blame a female foreigner for the problems of the French monarchy and economic conditions that led to the French Revolution.

I found some of the secondary characters equally fascinating: Marie’s friends the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac, her friend (and possibly lover), the Swedish Count Axel Von Fersen, and the artist who painted Marie many times, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. I would be especially interested in a book (fiction or nonfiction) about the latter.

Abundance was an okay book, but I’m not sure I would have read it had it not been for my local book club. I would suggest reading Fraser’s biography instead.

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