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