Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

This is a charming chocolate eclair or cream puff pastry of a book, however, it may send those accustomed to facts in their historical fiction into the literary equivalent of a diabetic coma.

This novel marks popular biographer Carolly Erickson's debut in the historical fiction genre. She classifies her 18th century confection as a "historical entertainment" and makes clear in an author's note at the end that "it is not an attempt at historical reconstruction," and a good thing too just in case anyone is tempted to take up this novel instead of a biography to learn about the life of Marie Antoinette.

In October 1793, while sitting in her prison cell in the Conciergerie, the threshold of the guillotine, Marie Antoinette looks back at the journal she began as a young girl full of hope and poised on the cusp of womanhood, before she learned "how cruel the world can be." The Marie Antoinette depicted on those pages emerges as an immature young woman endowed with more compassion than commonsense. She is charming, likable, and guileless, though somewhat vain and vapid, and more interested in fashion and leading a frivolous existence than in politics, her role in the dynastic alliance between Austria and France, or anything else for that matter. Before motherhood instills some maturity, and the French Revolution ignites to destroy her world like an anarchist's bomb blast, her diary entries are as light and frothy as meringue.

The first journal entry ideally illustrates compassion versus commonsense when the thirteen-year-old Archduchess Antonia, as she is then known, sneaks a basket of food to her dying sister who is quarantined with the virulent, and always deadly, black pox. Each journal entry gives us a little window into Marie Antoinette's often self-centered world. After her betrothal to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI, she lines up her fashion dolls and parades before them, imagining them as ladies of the French court bowing to their future queen. We see her share her first kiss with a handsome stablehand named Eric, and weep and wail because her future husband is no storybook Prince Charming--"He is ugly! He looks like a pig!" And through it all she impatiently waits for "General Krottendorf" (the name the Hapsburg archduchesses used to refer to their menstrual periods) to make his first appearance so she can rush out to meet her destiny in France.

In France, she finds her future husband, despite his lack of physical appeal, to be a painfully shy, socially awkward boy who is seized with terror at the thought of becoming king. But Louis' shyness and lack of grace obscure a kind heart and intelligent mind and give the false impression that he is stupid and slow-witted. In truth, Louis is a studious man, crippled by self-doubt and low self-esteem, who shuns the whirlwind social life Marie Antoinette flings herself into with such giddy abandon, preferring instead a quiet, simple life with the study of botany and lockmaking for leisure activities. He is usually in bed by eleven o'clock, sleeping like a log, while his wife's night is just beginning. Unlike other more imperious, self-centered monarchs, Louis genuinely does have a care for his subjects' welfare, but his attempts to economize are often defeated by his retiring personality, and a lack of confidence and backbone, especially when confronted with his wife's staggering dressmaker's bills. He eventually develops what he calls his "Theory of Mistaken Destiny," to explain and excuse his failure as a king. And later, when the cauldron of discontent stewing in Paris begins to boil over, he runs and hides from his ministers and foists all the responsibility of governing onto his wife's fair shoulders.

Their marriage remains unconsummated for years, and Marie Antoinette unjustly bears the blame for this. She becomes the subject of scurrilous verses, diplomatic plots to send her back to Vienna, endures a humiliating physical examination by the royal physician that reveals her hymen is still intact, and the chambermaids and laundresses gossip over her bedlinens. A courtesan is even discreetly brought in to instruct her in the arts of seduction and male arousal, but Louis' libido remains limp, and he proffers no explanation to his bewildered and frustrated young bride, though the royal physician later explains that Louis suffers from a slight and easily correctable deformity of the foreskin, but fears the surgery. With a husband who is more like a brother or a friend to her, Marie Antoinette looks to her handsome stablehand, Eric, for romantic consolation, albeit of a chaste nature. "He cannot give me the love I need," she explains when they discuss her marriage. "I need to know that your love is there, for me to think of, and rely on."

A series of bread riots are the first serious spark to indicate that all is not well in France. Marie Antoinette is momentarily disturbed--"This would never happen in Vienna, the soldiers would prevent it!"--but her pretty-as-a-French-pastry sugar-white-powdered head is still in the clouds, especially after she beholds the angelic vision of Count Axel Fersen of Sweden descending a staircase in all his white uniformed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed glory.

In the years that follow, as political unrest continues to simmer in France, Marie Antoinette revels in the true love she has found with Count Fersen, and finds both satisfaction and heartbreak in motherhood. A bit of chicanery conspired between Antoinette, her brother the Austrian Emperor Joseph, and the royal physician results in Louis having the necessary corrective surgery, and, after years of waiting, a royal child is at last conceived. But it is a princess, not a prince, and as females cannot inherit the throne by French law, many are quick to brand Marie Antoinette a failure. A miscarriage follows before she at last secures the succession with a son. Her heart-wrenching journal entries reveal the agony the crippled and ailing child suffers throughout his short life, and also show how sorrow and the helplessness she feels watching her child suffer leaves its mark on Marie Antoinette . With the birth of a second son, a thriving, hearty bundle of joy Antoinette affectionately calls her chou d'amour, she ensures that France now has an heir and a spare, but sorrow further tempers joy when her final child, a sickly, premature little girl, doesn't live out her first year. And through it all events and agitators continue to fan the flames of revolution, ultimately leading to a tragic end for Marie Antoinette and those she loves. Her journal entries let readers feel the heat of the French Revolution, and the frustration, despair, abuse, and humiliation the captive royal family endured. The inclusion of a former chambermaid with an axe to grind brings it to an even more personal level as the vengeful ex-servant gloats and glories in Marie Antoinette's misfortunes and does all she can to increase them.

Like one of Marie Antoinette's ornately decorated panniered ballgowns, Ms. Erickson's novel contains many romantic and dramatic embellishments, such as the Queen and Count Fersen going off to Sweden together for a romantic holiday, ostensibly to help King Gustavus decorate his new palace, a sort of "Swedish Versailles." This assuredly never happened, but perhaps it is Ms. Erickson's way of posthumously giving the lovers something they never had in life. She also simplifies and condenses the history, and is a tad too sparing with details and descriptions of Marie Antoinette's circle of friends. For instance, unless the reader is already familiar with the life of Marie Antoinette, they may not realize that a woman mentioned frequently but always only as "Loulou" is actually the Princesse de Lamballe; a fact not revealed until Marie Antoinette pens her friend's epitaph in her diary. And the Comtesse de Polignac is little more than a name that appears on several pages. I am sorry to say that these bosom friends who played such important roles in Marie Antoinette's life simply do not emerge as fully realized characters. And, most curiously, there is not a single mention of the monumental powder keg of a scandal known as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace" that blasted what little was left of Marie Antoinette's reputation into smithereens, though there is a cameo appearance by the charlatan Count Cagliostro who is brought in to try to heal the sickly Dauphin with magician's tricks and gobbledygook about Ancient Egyptian deities. There is even a daring, Scarlet Pimpernel style rescue attempt thrown in for good measure near the end.

All in all, though historical fiction purists will probably deplore it, this novel is like the cake the longstanding and erroneous legend says Marie Antoinette once advised her starving people to eat if they had no bread. And I, for one, happen to like cake, and, despite its flaws, I like this novel too.

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