Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Revolutionary Biography

Most people don't visit Paris, peruse Versailles, and then buy many heavy hardcover books and lug them the across the considerable grounds to Petite Triannon because "the bookstore will close long before we get back Hun!". Honeymoons can't get much better than french food and lots of new books to take home!

One of those books was the fabulous Marie-Therese, The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter, By Susan Nagel. Of which I was able to snag a UK edition 4 months prior to the North American release date.

Most people aren't aware that one of Marie Antoinette's children survived their imprisonment and then the Revolution itself. Even as a huge History buff myself, I didn't know the details or what happened to her. But survive Marie-Therese did and Susan Nagel has written a very compelling Biography of her life, before, after and during the French Revolution.

Marie-Therese was the first born of Marie Antoinette's four children, born in 1778, and living an amazing 73 years until 1851. She was part of the French monarchy, and was deposed twice, both during the revolution and again in the bourbon Restoration, and only reigned as queen for 20 minutes total in her lifetime. She spent the majority of her long life as a French emigre in many different foreign lands at the mercy of the current politics as well as the whims of her various royal relations. She was eventually married, but died childless, ending the legacy of Marie Antoinette within the Bourbon family.

Historical Biographies are an art form, no matter how interesting the subject matter, it depends wholly on the author to make the time period and details of their lives real and captivating. Like she did with Mistress of the Elgin Marbles, Susan Nagel has brought this story to life. The details of the imprisonment, were revelatory to me, and I've read dozens of books on the revolution and particularly on Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Because of the unusual focus on the children, and particularly what they had to deal with from the Revolutionaries, I spent the first time ever considering the true cruelty that was dealt to them.

Marie Therese's brother Louis XVII was ten when he died, in the Tower, and at times was so neglected there that at one point he was found in a cell "intolerably filthy" and smelling so badly the Jacobin commenting said he could "barely breath owing to the noxious smell", he was nine at the time and nobody would remove the excrement from his cell. He was left in the same clothes for a year, and being a small child with not the faintest idea how to clean them, you can imagine just how bad that would have been. For the first time ever, Susan Nagel had me thinking of Marie-Therese and Louis XVII not as the imprisoned bourbon heirs to France, but as someones innocent children.

My only objection to this book is it's lack of illustrations and photos. A mere 16 pages of photos and illustrations flesh out this 376 page book, which meant i spent a lot of time online looking up things like what the Louvre looked like in that time period, the cemetery at St Denis, and various other places playing an important part of her history.

One of the few biographies that made me think long and hard about Revolutionary France in a whole new way, this is a highly recommended read to those who are both new to this history and those who are well versed in it.

Marie-Therese, The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter, By Susan Nagel
Published by Bloomsbury USA, July 2009 (2008 for the UK edition)

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