Tea at Trianon is privileged to feature an exclusive interview with Susan Nagel, author of the newly-released Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie-Antoinette's Daughter. Dr. Nagel is a professor in the humanities department of Marymount Manhattan College. The first major biography in decades about the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, it includes some stunning revelations. A review of the book will be posted in the next few weeks. In the meantime, enjoy the interview!
EMV: Dr. Nagel, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed about your acclaimed new biography of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France. Many of the questions I am asking you explore in your book, in greater detail; we are providing here a mere glimpse. This is a greatly anticipated biography, especially on the part of those interested in Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
The Duchesse d'Angoulême is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic women in history and yet there have been relatively few biographies written about her. With the dozens of biographies and novels that have come out in the last decade about Marie-Antoinette, it amazes me that Madame Royale continues to be neglected, with there being only one English-language biography about her (yours) and only one novel (mine.) Do you have any thoughts about the reason for the lack of published contemporary works about such an extraordinary princess?
SN: It is a pleasure to address your readers, of whom I am one! To speak to your first question, it's always puzzling why there are sudden swells of interest in an event or person. Often, one discovery leads to interest in another. After the Dauphin's heart had undergone DNA testing and was placed in the crypt at St. Denis, I think people wanted some closure to the story about the fate of the royal couple's only child who survived the gruesome Temple Prison. I know I did.
EMV: There are those who claim, based on some childish remarks made by Madame Royale as a small child, that she nourished some deep, lasting grudge against her mother. What are your thoughts about Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte’s feelings for her mother Queen Marie-Antoinette?
SN: Like many young girls, Marie-Thérèse idolized her father and resented her mother to some extent. It's a classically understood syndrome. By the time that Marie-Thérèse was ten-years-old, however, she was definitely in awe of her mother. She wrote lovingly and with tremendous admiration about her mother's appearance on the balcony at Versailles on October 6, 1789, when the Queen curtseyed to the marauding crowds. It was a singular act of courage, which Marie-Thérèse never forgot. Marie-Thérèse also gave her mother credit for being the glue that kept the family together after the death of the first dauphin and their forced incarcerations at both the Tuileries Palace and the Temple Prison. She mentioned her mother's great humor in dealing with Louis Charles, the second Dauphin who later died in the Temple Prison. Marie-Thérèse also claimed to have learned resignation, which gave her great serenity, from the murdered Queen.
EMV: My impressions exactly.
Many people are aware that as a teenager Marie-Thérèse was imprisoned in the Temple tower for three years, with about one year spent in solitary confinement. Her little brother was being tormented in the rooms below, but she was not allowed to see him when he fell ill, nor was she allowed to view his body after he died. This is one of the things that, in those days before DNA tests, gave rise to the rumors that Louis XVII had been replaced by another boy. Dr. Nagel, why do you think that Marie-Thérèse was not permitted to see her brother, even when he was dying and would have been comforted by her presence?
SN: That is an excellent question, and I can only guess at the spectrum of reasons...
EMV: Marie-Thérèse married her first cousin Louis-Antoine, the Duc d'Angoulême. Some people claim that the princess made a private vow of chastity which prevented the marriage from being consummated. Did you uncover any evidence of this in the course of your research?
SN: The Angoulême marriage was most definitely consummated! I don't want to give anything away, but I do have a doctor's report and her own letters to a friend that confirm that the couple most definitely had sex.
EMV: Very interesting. That is a question about which past biographers were not always too certain.
In the case of Marie-Thérèse, people wonder how anyone could have emerged from so many traumas with their sanity intact. And yet when the Duchesse d'Angoulême appeared in Paris after twenty years, many were disappointed by her morose demeanor, especially in a crowd. It has been reported by some that the princess suffered from insomnia, that she could be heard pacing and pacing many nights, that she jumped at the sound of a bolt being drawn, displayed nervousness, irritability, fainting fits, and a dread of going any place where there were bad memories. In your opinion, do you think she suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome?
SN: That depends on which of the women we study. Was the "Dark Countess" the real Marie-Thérèse? If so, this woman definitely had some kind of nervous disorder. The woman who became the Duchesse d'Angoulême did indeed have painful memories, but she was not only very brave but I would say she had "nerves of steel." As I wrote in the book, one woman, defeated, one woman, defiant.
EMV: Yes, she was certainly a very strong person. In spite of an often brusque manner, the Duchesse d'Angoulême was said by many to be a basically kind and compassionate person, who spent a great deal of energy in helping the unfortunate. Did you find this to be the case? She was also known to be very religious. Do you think that her convictions were sincere, or mere superficial religiosity stemming from neurosis and scruples?
SN: Marie-Thérèse had many friends and was quite sociable and kind with children. There are many confirmations of her affability and merriment. She did often help those in need and this came from a sincere understanding of deprivation.
EMV: That has always been my sense about Marie-Thérèse as well.
Napoleon called her “the only man in her family.” How did Marie-Thérèse of France play a key role in shaping French politics in the early eighteenth century?
SN: Marie-Thérèse played a key role in shaping European politics. First, she did inherit rights to territories in France and, to legitimists, which included the other monarchs of Europe, of course, her choice of husbands was an important decision. When Napoleon was defeated, the other monarchs could simply not ignore her, and, when the peace treaty was being hammered out and the Duc d'Orleans was vying for the throne, her excellent public image helped secure the succession of Louis XVIII. Had Madame Royale married the Austrian Archduke Karl, as the Holy Roman Emperor had planned, people in France might be speaking German today! In addition, as the Duchesse d'Angoulême, her face-off with Napoleon's soldiers was certainly a testament to three generations of strong women...Wait, now I am giving too much away!
EMV: The Duchesse d'Angoulême was undoubtedly a stubborn woman in many ways, and had some negative traits. In spite of her faults, did you come to admire her in the course of your writing and research? Do you like her?
SN: As I tell my students, if you are going to spend days and months and years with someone, you had better like that person!
EMV: Dr. Nagel, thank you very much for your time in answering these questions. Most especially, thank you for your extensive research, for helping to shed light on the often mysterious but ever magnificent Madame Royale.