Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Queen’s Lover by Francine Du Plessix Gray

This much anticipated novel gives us a fresh look at one of history’s great love stories--the doomed romance between Marie Antoinette and the dashing Swedish Count Axel von Fersen.

They were both nineteen when they met at a masquerade ball at the Paris Opera House in 1774. Their love affair would stand the test of time, through Fersen’s other love affairs and service in the American War of Independence, and deepen through the French Revolution when Fersen tried to save his beloved and her family. He would continue to love her even after the guillotine took her life, until his own death at the hands on an angry mob in 1810.

The novel is narrated by Count Fersen himself and his beloved sister, Sophie, in places when supposedly the narrative would have been too painful for him. It weaves actual journal entries and letters in for added authenticity and includes many fascinating little tidbits of historical gossip.

I've been intrigued by the character of Count Fersen and his relationship with Marie Antoinette ever since I saw MGM's extravagant 1938 film "Marie Antoinette" starring Norma Shearer as the doomed queen and Tyrone Power as her Swedish Sir Galahad several years ago on Turner Classic Movies, and it's still one of my favorites.

I really wanted to like this book, I had been waiting for it for months, and even pre-ordered it as soon as Amazon started taking orders, but…I don’t quite known how to explain it, but something was just off. 

I am quite familiar with the lives of Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, and the morals of the eighteenth century aristocracy, so I wasn’t expecting a beautiful romance and fidelity. I've known about the other women in Count Fersen’s life for years, and the fact is if they were actually lovers Antoinette and Axel had precious little time together and lots of time apart. Time in which Fersen, an unabashed sensualist rather vain of his conquests, liberally indulged himself with just about any woman who was willing from noblewomen to chambermaids, while Marie Antoinette stayed at Versailles being a faithful wife to Louis XVI, a mother to her children, and being hated by the masses for her excesses until the guillotine made her a tragic heroine and frequent and beloved fixture in romantic dramas, costume epics, and historical fiction. So none of this came as a surprise to me. 

I think it was simply that Fersen isn't a very likable narrator, and as an author myself I know that's a tricky feat to pull off successfully; readers generally want to like the main character. I've read some of Fersen's journals and am familiar with the man’s character and he’s not one of those charming and witty rakes like Casanova that you can love to hate. For instance, when boasting of one of his conquests, the Fersen of this novel says “I’d rather not be thought of as a rake, just as an average, venturesome sexual athlete.” Even in his much vaunted devotion to Marie Antoinette, there are disappointing lapses. In fairness, Fersen was only human, and he probably did his best to save the royal family, but knowing that he went straight from what would be his last meeting with Marie Antoinette to hiding in his mistress’s attic so her live-in lover wouldn't suspect anything, and they could enjoy each other when he was absent, it just takes some of the shine off this Swedish knight’s armor.

Or it may be that we as the readers don't really get to see the relationship between Fersen and Marie Antoinette grow and actually being played out. Fersen gives us tantalizing glimpses, and little summaries about the time they spend together, but most of the time we don't actually get to "see" it. Instead of letting us look through the window, Fersen discreetly draws the blind on his private moments with the Queen.

If you’re looking for a beautiful romance, this novel isn't it, but if you’re interested in Marie Antoinette and her relationship with Count Fersen, given that there’s not a whole lot out there to choose from, you might want to give this a chance. And if you want the fairy tale as well as some truly scrumptious eye candy that actually has some substance as well as style, make sure you treat yourself to a viewing of the lavish 1938 film version and Tyrone Power's performance as the gallant and romantic Count Fersen.

I can't help myself, I just LOVE this movie.

1 comment:

Allison Macias said...

Glad you reviewed it. I've wanted to read it, but I will wait a bit longer now!