Saturday, June 16, 2007

Book Review: Abundance

When Abundance: A Novel of Marie-Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund first debuted last fall, it was difficult for readers of Trianon not to make comparisons. The two novels, however, should not be compared, since Abundance is an epic approach to Marie-Antoinette’s life, entirely in the diary/memoir format. Trianon, on the other hand, focuses upon how each member of the royal family faces death and loss, as well as the underlying spiritual struggles in the country, in the court and in the hearts of the protagonists.

is told from several points of view, not just from the queen's, so that the reader can get a sense of what was going on in politics, in Paris, in the prison, etc. It is difficult to limit oneself just to Marie-Antoinette’s perspective, although Victoria Holt did it masterfully. In Abundance, Marie-Antoinette comes across as intensely self-absorbed and introspective, albeit sweet and loving.

I did think it interesting how Dr. Naslund chose, as I did in Trianon, to use the passing on of a rose as a symbol of the relationship between Marie-Antoinette and her sister-in-law Madame Elisabeth. The author of Abundance likewise constructed a scene of the queen being painted by Madame le Brun, which is how Trianon begins. In Trianon, it was intended as a way to convey to the reader that the story about to unfold was a living portrait of the queen, beginning with surface qualities but journeying into the depths of the soul. Dr. Naslund’s novel has a much different emphasis. There are some graphic erotic episodes which, of course, Trianon does not have, since I wanted it to be accessible to very young readers.

I admire very much that Dr. Naslund did not give into the temptation to portray the queen as having a sexual affair with Count Fersen. She obviously did her homework and found that there is no proof a liaison. She depicts Marie-Antoinette as having a platonic love for the Count, never consummated, with the queen always putting her husband and children first. I did think it inaccurate to have Marie-Antoinette wrapped in Fersen fantasies while awaiting death, when from the queen’s own hand we know that she was preoccupied with the torments her little son was enduring, as well as with the misery of the other members of her family.

For that matter, even before the dark days of the Revolution, Marie-Antoinette’s letters contain barely a mention of Fersen. Rather, she is full of advice on matters of health, preoccupied with her husband, her children, her adopted children and the Polignac family. During the Revolution she was taken up with politics. When she did write to the Count, it was because of the dire needs of her family; Fersen was one of the only people able to help. All in all, she was an outgoing lady and, although she enjoyed her hours of solitude, she was not always given to deep reflection. The insistence of authors to write novels about her in the introspective diary format is becoming old hat.

Although the Marie-Antoinette of Abundance is a lovely, chaste soul, she is an insipid one. Her personality does not expand and rise to the heights of heroism and martyrdom as the testimony of her actual letters bears witness that she did. She is shown as sweet but clueless; we know from her private correspondence that although Marie-Antoinette was sweet she was not saccharine and she was anything but clueless.

Nevertheless, I commend Dr. Naslund for her efforts and for her attempts at an honest rather than a sensationalist portrait of the Queen of France. The novel is loaded with details about life at Versailles, and with actual portions of Marie-Antoinette's letters. Those interested in the ancien-regime can glean a great deal of information from this book. Share


Anonymous said...

I found some astonishing parallels between her book and Trianon, such as the scene of the artist painting the Queen, as if it were lifted right from Trianon, and considering Trianon was written quite a few years earlier.......

But thanks for your balanced review.

elena maria vidal said...

Ah, yes, there are actually many astonishing parallels. Very odd.

Anonymous said...

I'll take Eleanor Hibbert's "The Queen's Confession" (written under her pseudonym Victoria Holt) any day! She has a simple but wonderful writing style.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, she was a good writer.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Victoria Holt does have a captivating writing style, and I feel she attempts to be historically accurate. Elena, what is your opinion of "The Queen's Confession"?

elena maria vidal said...

It's OK, except for the Fersen fantasy.