Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History's Slave

My friend Gareth Russell informed me yesterday that he referred to my novel Trianon in his dissertation at Oxford University a few years ago. Gareth also tells me that both Trianon and Madame Royale are to be found at Bodleian Library at Oxford. I am overwhelmed! Below are some excerpts from Gareth's brilliant exegesis that he has kindly shared with us.
From: HISTORY’S SLAVE: THE POSTHUMOUS REPUTATION OF QUEEN MARIE-ANTOINETTE By Gareth Russell B.A. Oxon (Saint Peter’s College, University of Oxford, Trinity Term 2007. Supervised by Dr. R. Gildea, Fellow of Worcester College, University of Oxford.)

From Section II - FULL OF GRACE: The Cult of Marie-Antoinette, “the martyr-queen”

Incredible as it may seem, given that the reverse is true for their long-term political fortunes, it is the sanctified image of Marie-Antoinette created by royalist dévots and Catholic populism at the beginning of the nineteenth century that has endured with far greater strength and appeal than the republican-manufactured image of a debauched and cruel adulteress. For some die-hard monarchists, the spectral figure of Marie-Antoinette remains ‘the incarnation of The Cause’ and the politico-religious significance of her death is, for them, undiminished: ‘In Marie-Antoinette lived and perished one of the most gracious martyrs of the Faith ... [she] died for having wanted to remain an obedient daughter of the Church, a preserver, as far as it depended on her, of Christ’s presence in the realm of France and as loyal as she could be to Him as who saved her by the Cross.’ (Ref 2.19, J.M. Charles-Roux, “Marie Antoinette: The Martyred Queen of Christian Europe,” The Royal Stuart Society, 1988, Vol. 6., No. 3., 55 – 62, The Royal Stuart Society and Royalist League, Huntingdon.)

In 1997, American author, Elena Maria Vidal, published a novel based on the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, entitled “Trianon.” The novel in itself is interesting beyond being a work of literature because it preserves a particularly Catholic version of the fall of the monarchy and the personality of Marie-Antoinette in particular. Appearing on Catholic network television in the United States, the novelist criticised the ‘general impression that most people do [have of her], the kind of decadent feather-head who, you know, didn’t really care about the people’ and discussed the machinations of the Comte de Provence and the Duc d’Orléans, which were felt to have been largely responsible for the destruction of Marie-Antoinette’s initial popularity amongst the Parisians. The opening inscription of “Trianon” was a quote from the Marquise de Gouvion Broglie Scolari who, at the height of the royalist cult of Marie-Antoinette, had proclaimed, ‘Never a saint more merited to be ranked in the long list of martyrs than Marie-Antoinette.’

However, it would be wrong to paint “Trianon” as a resurrection of purely Catholic polemicism in a modern commercial guise. It did not attempt to erase, for instance, instances of the Queen’s extravagance or various political mistakes made by the monarchical establishment in the years immediately pre-dating the Revolution. It was, in short, a far more nuanced characterizations than we might expect if we were simply to crudely label Miss Vidal’s work as “Catholic” and attempt to draw a straight line from it back to the explosion of popular veneration associated with Marie-Antoinette in the immediately post-Restoration era. The atmosphere and tone of “Trianon” is thus what we might describe as “emotionally Catholic,” but is neither panegyric nor polemical and this is an important development. As we shall see, the links between “Trianon” and Catholic sentiment about Marie-Antoinette are revelatory and indicative of a wider historiographical trend – for they are strong, but they are not prohibitive or controlling, nor have they negatively affected the tone of the novel and it is this kind of long-term links, persistent yet evolutionary, which characterises the relationships between the earlier and the later cultural manifestations of Marie-Antoinette’s posthumous reputation....
From Section III – A VEIL OF ANECDOTES: Marie-Antoinette as the heroine of Royalist Literature

Like the first royalist interpretation of Marie-Antoinette – that of the immaculate martyr – this second royalist version has enjoyed considerable longevity. However, the tragic heroine presented in the works of the Duchesse d’Angoulême, Madame Campan, the Marquise de Tourzel and Rosalie Lamorlière, has enjoyed much wider appeal than the icon of popular French-Catholic culture. The four memoirs in question have been heavily relied upon by all of the Queen’s subsequent biographers and many of the novelistic treatments of her – we can see their influence in books as differing as Lady Antonia Fraser’s “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” and Elena Maria Vidal’s novel “Trianon.” For although they all differ fundamentally in tone and personal style, the four memoirists relied upon personal memories and anecdotes to bolster their own firm belief that Marie-Antoinette had been both simultaneously heroine and victim and they also faithfully record their own private impressions of her, rendering her a more human character than other source. Most importantly, their reliance on personal and verifiable intimate memories gives their interpretations a timeless and universal appeal, exactly what the historian or novelist is looking for in creating or researching a personality.

From Section IV – THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE: Beauty and Sexuality in the Myth of Marie-Antoinette
Sub-section B: “Marie-Antoinette in Lesbian Literature”

Marie-Antoinette, as both beautiful woman and tragic queen, has naturally been the subject of several popular novels in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the most recent, “Abundance” by Sena Jester Naslund, has enjoyed considerable commercial success. Yet, curiously, Marie-Antoinette has inspired statistically less popular fiction that other equally famous and unlucky royal women – substantially less in fact than, say, Anne Boleyn, who has been the subject of over twenty novels since the publication of Margaret Campbell-Barnes’s “Brief, Gaudy Hour” in 1959. In fact, the current number of novels about Marie-Antoinette in print barely outnumbers those on less important or less famous princesses, such as Catherine Howard, whose disastrous but otherwise practically irrelevant eighteen-month marriage to Henry VIII is the subject of three popular novels currently in print, with a fourth predicted for 2008. The absence of any substantial number of biographical novels on Marie-Antoinette presumably has something to do with the “quiet” period in her life, between the birth of Madame Royale in 1778 and the outbreak of the Affair of the Necklace in 1785 – an awkward seven year period which creates natural difficulties for any novelist.

The dominant feature about modern novels about Marie-Antoinette, from Jean Plaidy’s popular series in the 1970s to the more recent works like Kathryn Davis’s “Versailles” (1999), Carolly Erickson’s “Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette” (2005) and the aforementioned “Trianon” by Elena Maria Vidal is that they are all largely sympathetic to their main character, without being hagiographic. Fictitious chroniclers of Marie-Antoinette have never written a story in which she is portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative light – in contrast to Jean Plaidy’s “Madame Serpent” on Catherine de Medici or Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” on Anne Boleyn.

... The use of Marie-Antoinette in feminist-Lesbian literature can be queried on a variety of fronts. The first and most serious being that there is no real evidence that the historical Marie-Antoinette was a lesbian or even bisexual. Criticisms and concerns have also been voiced about popular lesbian activism’s appropriation of a woman who, according to one feminist scholar was, a ‘feckless, manipulative, often ruthless’ ultra-monarchist, who was not only entirely heterosexual but prudishly so. (Ref 4.63, T. Castle, “Marie-Antoinette Obsession,” in “Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen,” ed. D. Goodman, New York, 2003, p. 229) According to such a line of argument, Marie-Antoinette is both politically and sexually inappropriate for the lesbian activist cause and her use, first seriously and later frivolously, as a gay icon represents a worry ‘apolitical, aestheticized, even reactionary subcultural phenomenon’. (Ref 4:64, Ibid.)

However, despite the obvious historical problems with Marie-Antoinette’s posthumous role in emergent 20th century lesbian culture, the fact that the Queen was accused of lesbianism and that her reputation suffered so much because of it means that she has acquired an obvious appeal for later generations of civil rights activists. The lynching of the Princesse de Lamballe by a revolutionary mob in September 1792 was, to a very real degree, the result of the rumours concerning her intimacy with the Queen. By removing the political connotations which caused the accusations of lesbianism in the first place, Marie-Antoinette can easily be transformed into an attractive icon for repressed gay culture. It might be argued that it is almost irrelevant from an anthropological point-of-view that the historical queen was neither lesbian, bisexual, nor a liberal – for example the lesbian accusations are treated for what they undoubtedly were (false) in novels like “Trianon” or “Versailles” – because the true importance of Marie-Antoinette’s story for gay history is that the prejudices her alleged sexuality provoked indicate just how unpalatable social circumstances were for genuine homosexuals in revolutionary France, particularly as more and more work by modern historians shows that homophobia (as we would now understand it) was far more virulent under the Republic than the monarchy.

The years between 1918 and 1939 witnessed an increased struggle for a lesbian and gay consciousness in the face of considerable social conservatism – literature such as “The Well of Loneliness” forms a small but important part of this cultural evolution. In this environment, Marie-Antoinette, a by-then famously romantic figure whose sexuality was apparently open to interpretation, could be used by authors to subtly suggest homoerotic possibilities to their readers. Like most of the initial readers of books like “The Well of Loneliness” or “Frost in May,” had Marie-Antoinette been a lesbian she would have had no choice but to repress her sexuality as best she could. Therefore, her use as a gay icon diminished – as we have seen – once repression became the exception, rather than the norm. Thus, Marie-Antoinette as a spectral emotional guide in gay literature lost her potency after the 1970s and 1980s, but there can be no real question of the importance she did have as a kind of focal point for lesbian authors and their readers in works of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, in their search for an elusive communal identity.

In some senses, the lesbian incarnation is one of the more factually untenable appropriations of Marie-Antoinette, perhaps even more so than the infamous cake canard. In modern novels like “Trianon” or “Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette,” Marie-Antoinette’s sexuality is never presented as anything other than entirely heterosexual – something which is almost certainly accurate. That is because the authors of these novels seek to portray what they interpret as a cultural, historical or emotional truth – the sheer level of research which has gone into some of the current in print novels, particularly Vidal’s “Trianon,” show that the authors seek to educate their readers about what they think, and we should think, of Marie-Antoinette. On the other hand, the writers of these early works of homosexual consciousness were not seeking to make us think again on the truth about Marie-Antoinette, but what to think again on the truth about ourselves and our society.


Gareth Russell said...

Thanks so much for the quote. I'm glad you like it and it's a fantastic topic. More importantly, thank you so much for "Trianon" being so great to research back in 2007. I remember being terrifically impressed, after a fairly depressing day of literary research!

I notice a few typos in this, so I hope I cut and pasted it from the final draft just before the SPG check. I HOPE I didn't hand a thesis in saying "Post-Reformation" rather than "Post-Restoration." If I did, then Anne and Marie-Antoinette were obviously once again competing for the spotlight in my head.

Anyway, thank you again and I'm so, so glad you liked it.

elena maria vidal said...

Gareth, I just changed it to "Restoration." Thanks for letting me know. Couldn't find any other spelling errors! Thank you for writing such a brilliant paper!

Julygirl said...

WOW! I am sure you are humbled by all this, EMV. But it is recognition that is most deserved!

CR Wall said...

Darling Elena Maria--How wonderful to read this! What an honor for you.

Thank you, Gareth, for the info! Gareth, I've also visited your blog and it is absolutely wonderful!

Unknown said...

Congratulations, Elena, I'm so happy for you! It's a great that your books are at the Bodleian Library. I'd also like to say how refreshing it is to read a historical novel that doesn't leave out the religious dimension of its characters. Most historical novels either distort the religious aspect (usually by making Catholics look bad and Protestants look good)or they completely ignore it. "Trianon" and "Madame Royale" are Catholic novels because Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV, Madame Royale and others were devout Catholics and they cannot be understood if such an important part of their personality is left out. Religious faith was extremely important to our ancestors and it affected every aspect of their lives and of their perspective. It is very annoying to read novels where characters seem to live in a world where religion does not exist or does not play a part in the life of the characters. Your books are different and you should be proud of it.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you all! Yes, I am humbled and still trying to absorb it!

May said...

This is a splendid paper, congratulations to Mr. Russell! I do see the Queen as a martyr, but as with anyone, becoming a saint is a slow and painful process.

I loved TRIANON and MADAME ROYALE. You have a rare talent for writing literature rich in emotions, without falling into emotionalism.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Matterhorn!

Gareth Russell said...

Thank you, Matterhorn. It was difficult whilst writing it to remain impartial and not give my own views on the matter or the subjects' interpretation!

lara77 said...

Elena Maria, I could not top all the wonderful comments listed above; just my deepest congratulations and best wishes on the wonderful news about Trianon and Madame Royale.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Lara!