Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror

Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror by Susan Nagel is a greatly anticipated biography which provides an overview of the turbulent life of the courageous daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Rare anecdotes and little-known incidents are pulled together into one volume to make for a consuming read. I would especially recommend it to the readers of the novel Madame Royale since it fills in many gaps which the novel, being a novel, did not cover. The Duchesse d'Angoulême, who was in looks and personality a total blending of both parents, is portrayed as emerging from a tragic situation to become one of the most powerful women in Europe. The reader shares in her triumphs, in her falls, in her heartbreaks.

I had reservations when first hearing that the new biography covered the Dark Countess legend, but since the story that Madame Royale was switched with another girl is all over websites and discussions boards, the author really had no other choice but to deal with it. Nagel presents the mystery of the Dark Countess and Dark Count (yes, there was a “Dark Count,” too) in a way that is intriguing, while making it clear that Madame Royale and the Duchesse d'Angoulême were unquestionably the same person. (Not that any doubt ever crossed my mind.)

I also must admit that in the opening chapters of the book I was a bit put off by the insinuations that Louis XVI had an affair with Madame de Polignac, Marie-Antoinette’s best friend. Not in any biographies of either Louis or Antoinette have I ever come across such an assertion, which includes Louis’ fathering of little Jules. Of course, I have not read everything and nothing is outside the realm of possibility, I suppose. It is known that Louis was close to Madame de Polignac and wrote her many letters, bestowing marks of honor upon her that he showed to no other lady. As outrageous as an allegation of an affair may be to those who are familiar with Louis XVI’s life, at least it goes against the stereotype of Louis as an impotent, asexual drone. However, I have to draw the line at the book’s claim of the king begetting a child with one of the servants. The image of Louis XVI chasing a helpless chambermaid produces too much cognitive dissonance. The biography is not footnoted as extensively as it could be, especially when otherwise unheard of claims are being made.

In most other respects, Nagel quotes directly from the various memoirs to produce a highly favorable portrait of the royal family, although their foibles and faults are not ignored. I do think that the scheming Louis XVIII is portrayed a bit too positively, though. The Revolution is seen mostly from Madame Royale's point of view, and her view is understandably not very benign, since as a young child she was forced to witness bloodshed and social chaos. One by one her immediate family members were led away to die. In the prison she could hear the tormented cries of her little brother but was not allowed to comfort him or visit him when he was sick. Did she hate the Revolution and all symbols of it? Yes.

With sensitivity and insight, Nagel does not hesitate to demonstrate how the faith of Marie-Thérèse sustained her through so many sorrows. The books also makes it clear that Marie-Thérèse was dedicated to France in almost the same way as a nun is dedicated to her vows. For Madame Royale, no sacrifice, personal or otherwise, was too great, if it benefited her country. She married, not out of love, but out of what she saw as her duty to France. Contrary to many past biographies, Nagel produces evidence that the marriage of Marie-Thérèse to her cousin the Duc d'Angoulême was indeed consummated. (It makes one feel more sorry for her; Angoulême was so unappealing.)

Rising above personal disappointments, Marie-Thérèse led a life rich in love, full of friends and devotion to the poor. I learned a great deal about her friendships with people such as Queen Louise of Prussia, Napoleon’s “beautiful enemy,” Louise’s mother being a childhood friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s. The Duchesse d’Angoulême’s love of simplicity and her ability to relate so well to small children are qualities of which ample evidence is given. Most remarkable was her talent for stealing the show at certain crucial events, when she would appear magnificently dressed, with jewels and plumes that heightened her regal bearing, leaving no doubt in the minds of onlookers that she was the greatest princess of all.

Marie-Thérèse’s struggles with her memories and sad feelings are explored and might have been explored a little more. The emphasis is on her energy and dynamism, which were certainly outstanding aspects of her character. The search for what happened to her brother and the various pretenders is touched upon, not exhaustively, but then there are other books which deal specifically with those phenomena. Many fascinating details of the life of the Duchesse d'Angoulême are included, most of which are taken from primary sources, and for those aspects I found it an enjoyable read. If a person is not an admirer of Marie-Thérèse and her family, they might find it all tiresome, but I hated for the book to end.

(*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.) Share


Anonymous said...

I am adding this to my "next book to read" list!

Catherine Delors said...

I had never heard either of Louis XVI's supposed dalliances. I agree that they are completely at odds with all of other reliable accounts of his life and character. A pity Dr. Nagel did not reveal her sources in this regard.

As for the fact that Marie-Therese hated the Revolution, if anyone had good personal reasons to do so, she certainly did.

Her charming portrait by Wertmuller on the cover of the book, by the way, is part of the current Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Grand Palais.

elena maria vidal said...

One would think that if Louis had been dallying then Count Mercy would have recorded it is his reports to the the Queen's family. He did express a lot of misgivings about the influence of Madame de Polignac but he never mentioned that she was sleeping with Louis. Something like that would have been seen as diminishing Marie-Antoinette's influence with her husband, such as it was, and would have been a matter of great concern. Especially if Madame de Polignac had borne Louis a child....

Gareth Russell said...

I hope to get the book myself, but I must say the Polignac insinuation sounds frankly absurd. I have just finished writing a play about the final months at Versailles, which is to be put on in Oxford this summer. I took a decision to portray Gabrielle de Polignac's character more harshly than others might have given the context of when the play is set. However, I think that no matter what negative sides of her personality one chooses to show (and I certainly tried to balance my portrayal!), promiscuity is certainly not one of them. I think that there is frankly no evidence to support her supposed affair with the comte de Vaudreuil, let alone Louis XVI! The king, whilst certainly not asexual, was faithful to his wife (as, I believe, she was to him.) I think his fondness for La Polignac had much to do with her glamour and her charm - her ability to discomfort people when it suited her and her ability to dazzle them and flatter them when she wanted. I think her kindness to him made a long-lasting impression, especially since it was discerning. I doubt it was a sexual relationship, in any way. I am pleased to hear the rest of the book was sympathetic and unearthed more on the princess royal's life than simply the image of the frigid, traumatised victim of popular legend!

elena maria vidal said...

Hi, Gareth, I have heard of your play and would love to see it. I share your view of Gabrielle. Also, aside from the part about extramarital affairs, I think that Dr. Nagel's portrayal of Louis XVI is closer to the real Louis than many other biographies. The book is definitely a must read for anyone interested in Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and especially Madame Royale.

elena maria vidal said...

I would also like to add that I received a kind note from Dr. Nagel, concerning her sources for certain matters in the biography. The hunch that Madame de Polignac's son Jules was fathered by Louis XVI is based upon information gleaned from letters among Maria-Theresa, Count Mercy and Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI's brothers also treated young Jules as a family member during the Bourbon Restoration with special appointments, etc...(see pages. 313-14 in the book). No other child of Polignac's was ennobled a prince nor treated as a member of the Bourbon family.

As for the story of Louis XVI's alleged daughter, "Ernestine," Montjoye, who was a contemporary of the murdered royal couple, referred to her in his account. Madame Campan referred to her as well as the "girl who is always with Madame Royale." The fact that she was mentioned at all is, according to some scholars, a signal that Ernestine's origins may have been unique.

Laurie said...

For those of us fascinated with the lives of Marie Antoinette and her family, this is a wonderful read.

elena maria vidal said...

I certainly thought so.

Unknown said...

Having just read this book, I agree that the Louis XVI affair / illegitimate child assertion is very odd. I rather wanted to believe it, but couldn't remember it in any other biography. Glad to know I wasn't the only one to clock it. Does anyone know where she got the info from?

El Jefe Maximo said...

You have a most interesting blog, and I will definitely take some time to page through it.

The poor Duchesse d'Angoulême is for me the most interesting member of Louis XVI's family (save possibly Comte d'Artois (later Charles X). Napoléon I called her (uncharitably) the only man in that generation of the Bourbon family.

I bridled just a shade at your saying that Louis XVIII was portrayed in this book a bit too positively. I've not read this book, but Louis XVIII comes in for so much bad press, so often, from so many different quarters, that I feel compelled to speak up for him a wee bit.

Louis XVIII was unquestionably a schemer, and this quality served him well, particularly after his exile and once he finally became king. I must say, also (and I'm rather on the Bonapartist side of things), that Louis XVIII, at the time he got the throne, proved to be a pretty good king, considering the circumstances he had to work with. At any rate, Louis XVIII certainly had a firmer grasp of political reality than either elder brother Louis XVI or his even more inept younger brother Charles X.

This is far from saying he was likable. Louis XVIII was a much better king than he was a brother or subject.

elena maria vidal said...

Welcome, el jefe. Do read the book and perhaps you will see what I am talking about in regard to Louis XVIII. He was indeed a competent ruler, but his plotting against Louis XVI contributed to the Revolution. I thought the book was a bit soft on his misdeeds.

SuzanneG said...

I just started this the other day, along with "Mistress of the Revolution" and can't decide which one I should read first! (Love it when that happens... :)

Anyway, I just came over here to read about them on your blog and am enjoying your reviews an ensuing discussions/comments.

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!
Happy Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord,