Saturday, June 18, 2011

Nesta Webster Revisited

Years ago, while researching Trianon, I read Nesta Webster's Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution and really appreciated it for the masterful character study of the royal couple. Every contention is carefully documented while written in a stirring yet composed style. I decided long ago that Mrs Webster's dual biography was the one I would wanted to have written myself.

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.


pimprenelle said...

I read "Marie Antoinette intime", which I found accurate, relevant, erudite and... fascinating. This book was published in 1981, and I guess it is the only one available in French... alas, for I'd really like to read the one you are talking about, dear Elena Maria !

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Pimprenelle, you would enjoy it! Webster really demolishes the Fersen fantasy once and for all. I am going to do a separate post on that aspect of her research. I enjoyed "Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before and during the Revolution" very much and I did not see anything anti-semitic about it at all. I really want to read "Marie-Antoinette Intime."

Anonymous said...

Great review. I hope these works experience a comeback.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how older well written history books like this one are under rated and appreciated.

By the way, it was I who posted as Anonymous about France and Islam. I clicked the button!

Leo said...

This is indeed the same calumny that is slung at Hilaire Belloc, one of the greatest Catholic historians, in an effort to discredit them.
I've been reading Webster's "The French Revolution", and I must say it has been a most enlightening piece, Webster seems to have a good grasp of the topic, unlike many "historians" inserting their opinions and revisionism into the mix, it's been thus far a good historical work.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Leo.

David said...

A.J. P. Taylor, the well known British historian, reviewed Webster's book On Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette very favorably in the Manchester Guardian in 1937.

ass-hat said...

It is to be expected that this historian be smeared and thus falsely discredited, considering what she exposed. I recommend her 'Secret Societies and Subversive Movements', which is crucial in trying to understand what is happening on the global scene today, let alone the past. Whatever her personal politics may or may not have been, she was clearly a genuinely brilliant researcher and historian - we should tackle her histories only on the merit of the work itself and the veracity of the information therein. She also writes clearly and beautifully and is a pleasure to read.

Anna Gibson said...

I wholeheartedly agree about the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette Befor/During the Revolution volumes - although I don't quite agree with some Webster's theories on the revolution itself, her research into the lives of the king and queen is priceless to anyone wishing to get a more balanced (and less "sensationalized") view of their lives.