Friday, December 21, 2007

Madame Royale and the Substitution Theory

There is a new biography about Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte coming out in 2008. It is called Marie-Thérèse, Child of the Terror: The Fate of Marie-Antoinette's Daughter by Susan Nagel. According to Harper Collins:

Susan Nagel is the author of a critically acclaimed book on the novels of Jean Giraudoux. She has written for the stage, the screen, scholarly journals, the Gannett newspaper chain, and Town & Country. She is also the author of "Mistress of the Elgin Marbles", a biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. A professor in the humanities department of Marymount Manhattan College, she lives in New York City.
I have long been hoping for a new biography of Madame Royale, the Duchesse d' Angouleme, based on solid sch
olarship. I hope this will be the one. Dr. Nagel sounds like a reputable scholar.

People always ask me why I chose to write novels instead of biographies, since to write a good historical novel demands about as much research as a biography. I chose to write novels about Marie-Antoinette and
Marie-Thérèse because I wanted to explore the deeper themes of suffering, martyrdom, perseverance, and the mystical role of women, which is easier to do in a novel. One can study the psychological complexities of the various characters and come to an understanding of their issues in art based on true historical events.

The historical novelist has a serious obligation to be faithful to the integrity of the characters and events. Some artistic license and creative interpretation may be necessary for the flow of the story. However, to make the personages do and say things that in reality they would never have done or said is to make an unjust and irresponsible portrayal. For instance, for Carrolly Erickson in her Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette to show the queen having a long term liaison with Count Fersen contradicts what we know about her regular practice of her religion. As biographer Jean Chalon points out, if the queen had been having an affair with Fersen, a confessor would have made her send him away. As it was, he kept coming around and was a friend of her husband's as well. There was nothing to hide. (Erickson also has the queen traveling to Sweden with the count, which makes her novel one of fantasy rather than historical fiction.)

What I have less patience for than novels which take untoward liberties, are biographies which, while purporting to be based on facts and a careful sifting of research, reduce themselves to novelization by indulging in sheer romanticism. One such biography is the highly popular Marie-Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, which I reviewed last spring. It is well-written and highly readable, like most of Lady Fraser's extensive body of work. Therefore, I was appalled to see Fraser make the claim that the queen and Fersen slept together because "the idea of a great pure love, which is never consummated...does not seem to fit the facts of human nature." (Fraser, The Journey, p.203) Oh, really? I read on the Lew Rockwell report about the love letters of Ernest Hemingway to Marlene Dietrich. Apparently, the two were in love with each other for many years but had a platonic relationship. So you see, dear Lady Antonia, such restraint is possible, even among the morally lax.

Anyway, I heard through the Marie-Antoinette grapevine that Susan Nagel's biography of Madame Royale includes an exploration of the old "substitution" theory. The substitution theory, which keeps flaring up like wild fire on internet discussion forums, claims that Louis XVI had an "operation" and was encouraged by his wicked brother Provence to test his prowess upon a serving maid. The maid, who was a married woman, gave birth to a daughter named Marie-Philippine Lambriquet
. Marie-Antoinette eventually adopted the girl and renamed her "Ernestine" after a character in one of her favorite novels. Ernestine and Madame Royale were educated together.

Later, the legend claims, while Madame Royale was in prison, she was raped and impregnated. She was sent off to Germany to a small town where she was made to wear a green veil and given the name of "Sophie Batta," also known as "The Dark Countess." Meanwhile, her wicked uncle Louis XVIII replaced her with her alleged "half-sister" Ernestine, who became the Duchesse d' Angouleme. The "Dark Countess" rumor was perpetuated by
Marie-Thérèse's moroseness and lack of beauty. How could she be the daughter of the beautiful lively Marie-Antoinette? So they assumed that she was someone else.

Here are some glaring points as to why this story is untenable:

1) Louis XVI had no illegitimate children. There is no proof that he had an operation. He was known for his devotion to his wife, fidelity to his marriage vows and his religious scrupulosity. He did not have an affair with a chambermaid and beget Ernestine. There was an Ernestine, a child of servants, whom Marie-Antoinette adopted. (She adopted two other children as well. The queen came from a large family and liked having lots of children around.) There is no evidence that Ernestine was the secret daughter of Louis XVI or of any of the other princes.

2) Louis XVIII would have had to pay off a huge amount of people to buy their silence, and he really did not have all that much money - not enough for that kind of blackmail. He had been an impoverished exile for over 20 years. When he did get hold of some cash, he immediately deposited it in an English bank. The Bourbon family lived on his savings the next time they were all exiled.

3)Louis XVIII may have been clever and devious enough to carry off that kind of a hoax, but the other members of the family were not. His brother Artois (Charles X) was notorious for his lack of discretion. His nephew the Duc d'Angouleme, Madame Royale's husband and cousin, was deeply pious and scrupulously honest, in spite of other innumerable short-comings. He would never have been able to live that kind of a lie - the lie he had to live, that of having a marriage in name only, was difficult enough. The other nephew, the Duc de Berry, was like his father Artois, completely unable to be devious, no matter how hard he tried.

4) Many faithful retainers and childhood friends of Madame Royale, such as Pauline de Bearn and her mother the royal governess Madame de Tourzel, were close to
Marie-Thérèse before and after the Revolution. Both mother and daughter were known as women of honor and to insinuate that they would participate in such a hoax is outrageous to say the least. There were many, many others, who had lost fortunes through being faithful to the royal family and were not the type to sacrifice their principles over such a charade that really served no purpose.

I do hope that the forthcoming biography does not subscribe to this wild theory, or it will cease to be non-fiction. It is a shame that so many people cannot accept the broken woman that Madame Royale became after all she endured, and instead have to pretend that she was an imposter.


Anonymous said...

Why would she have had to have M.A.’s personality to have been her child. I know many families where the children have their own personality, and are not at all like either parent.

elena maria vidal said...

Exactly. And she did have a lot of her mother's personality-- she had her pride, her loyalty, and her courage.

Luku said...

Why would it have been so bad for her to want to hide for a while? After everything she was put through in her life, why not what to shield your self and live the remainder of your life quietly? I don't completely believe the story because there is no proof, but couldn't it be possible?

elena maria vidal said...

Susan Nagel's wonderful new biography totally disproves the Dark Countess legend. Marie-Therese did not follow her own desires, but did what was right for her country, and so she married her cousin the Duc d'Angouleme, an heir to the throne.

May said...

The Dark Countess legend is such nonsense! It is highly distasteful when sensationalism flourishes around tragedies. It must have been very distressing for Marie-Thérèse to have to contend with these rumors, on top of everything else.