Having recently finished the second volume of the biography, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the Revolution, I felt inspired to write a review. I dutifully googled Nesta Webster and to my horror saw her on many websites accused of being "a fascist and an anti-semite." She also appears to be the Queen of Conspiracy theories. She is certainly a cause of much cyber-polarization; she is either praised as being one of the greatest historians who ever lived or else dismissed as an obscurantist fanatic and a believer in reincarnation. Most biographical accounts I have found are written by those who detested her, so I do not know how balanced they are. I see her as being a bit like the Lord Darlington character in the Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day. Many in the British upper and middle classes in the 1930’s saw fascism as a political solution and a viable response to the proposed Communist takeover of the world.
Similarly, there were Americans in the 1920’s and 30’s who were infatuated with Communism and saw “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a great guy, oblivious to the thousands whom he and Lenin had already murdered. Looking back, there is so much more we now know about the Communists, Nazis and other socialist and fascist groups than their contemporaries did at the time. Any association with Nazism, even from a distance, can taint someone’s research for all posterity, which is what has happened to Nesta Webster.
For a general history of the French Revolution, I have found Simon Schama’s Citizens to be very reliable. Webster’s two volume work on Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, however, cannot be ignored by any serious student of the revolutionary era, even if one finds assertions of Masonic conspiracies to be laughable, as many scholars do.
Of Louis XVI Webster writes: “As Soulavie says again, under former kings the monarch was the idol of the nation, under Louis XVI, on the contrary, the nation was the object almost of adoration of the King.” She discusses the painting by Hersent of “Louis XVI relieving the Afflicted” of which an eye-witness later said that art completely imitated reality in that case.
Webster lists the many reforms of Louis XVI which began in 1774 at the beginning of his reign, including the abolition of torture, civil rights for Jews and Protestants, the abolition of servitude and lettres de cachet, and many more. By July of 1789, with the problems with the Estates-General and the death of his oldest son, he was essentially having a nervous breakdown. Indeed, the King had a series of physical and mental collapses in the last turbulent years of his life; it is amazing he was able to function at all. The queen became his strength, and therefore Marie-Antoinette more than ever became the target of the pamphleteers and of those who wanted control of the throne. Louis XVI did not want to leave his people in the hands of extremists and the queen, of course, would not leave his side. “I will die at his feet” she was heard to say repeatedly, when it was suggested that she try to escape on her own.
Webster shows how on several occasions, when attacked by the mob, it had been the hope of the revolutionary leaders, especially the Duc d’Orleans, that the royal couple would either flee or be killed. The fact that Louis and Antoinette were able to ride the tide of total upheaval for four years can be attributed to their courage, which gained the respect even of those intent upon tearing them to pieces. The king and especially the queen had the gift of turning enemies, such as Mirabeau, Barnave, and Toulan, into friends. As the revolutionary leader Barnave found, according to Beaulieu, “the Queen treated him with that affectionate politeness which had led her to being given the title of ‘Mary, full of grace (Marie, pleine de graces).’” Webster shows how the blunders of the far right (the émigrés abroad) led to the destruction of Louis, Antoinette and their family as much as did the malice of their enemies on the left. Nevertheless, the king, queen and Madame Elisabeth were distinguished for their profound courtesy, kindness and forgiveness, even in the most desperate situations.
Their trials forged Louis and Antoinette into one, as Webster demonstrates throughout her work with many citations. At the beginning of their imprisonment in the Temple in August 1792, the queen shed tears, saying to her husband: “I weep less for myself than for you.”
Louis XVI replied: “Our eyes were not given us to weep with, but to look up to Heaven, the source of all our consolations….”
At these words, the queen dried her eyes and faced the situation with the magnificent courage that sustained her to the end. It was now that she entered the fifth phase of her life. Once, a light-hearted child—then a pleasure-loving woman—a mother—a politician—she fulfilled her tragic destiny to the last and became that great figure revered by all noble minds of posterity—the Queen Martyr.Share