Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
Sena Jeter Naslund
from the book cover:
Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas, the young queen embraces her new family and the French people, and she is embraced in return. Eager to be a good wife and strong queen, she shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in doing so, fails to give her the thing she – and the people of France – desire most: a child and an heir to the throne.
Deeply disappointed and isolated in her own inti-mate circle apart from the social life of the court, the queen allows herself to remain ignorant of the country’s growing economic and political crises. She entrusts her soul to her women friends, her music teacher, her hairdresser, the ambassador from Austria, and a certain Swedish count so handsome that admirers label him “the Picture.” When her innocent and well-chaperoned pilgrimage to watch the sun rise is viciously misrepresented in satiric pamphlets as a drunken orgy, the people begin to turn against her. Poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge as the royal family and many nobles are caught up in a murderous time known as “the Terror.”
At the age of fourteen, Princess Maria Antonia of Austria was sent to France to be married to the fifteen-year-old Dauphin (crown prince) Louis Auguste, thus forging an alliance between their countries and re-christening her as the French Dauphine, Marie Antoinette. Such alliances are cemented by producing heirs, but it takes several years and ascension to the throne before this marriage is consummated successfully, and a second pregnancy before a prince is born. The queen-to-be diverts herself with court life and gambling in the years prior to motherhood, less interested than her husband in reading or learning about the people they rule. When years of poor crops, poverty, and anger at the extravagances of the royal court finally provoke the French people to revolt, the queen never quite believes that their love for the monarchy, who have been chosen by God to rule over them (the “divine right of kings”), could have been so diminished, even as her family and friends are driven into exile, imprisoned, and put to death.
Marie Antoinette’s public image has been undergoing some favorable revision in the last few years; for one thing, historians have absolved her of that “let them eat cake” quote. This historical novel, narrated in “Toinette’s” voice, begins with her journey from Austria to meet her husband and goes to, literally, the end, as the guillotine drops toward her neck. She comes across as fairly likable, sweet, sheltered, and rather clueless, genuinely having little understanding of life outside the court. Her attitude toward the French people seems more oblivious and unaware than venal or malicious, although the agitators among the revolutionaries paint her, and the rest of the aristocracy, as evil. Not many of the supporting characters are very well developed, but that actually seems in character for a first-person narrative about someone who really is the center of her world. The writing itself is a bit pedestrian, and the story drags in spots, but that’s probably appropriate in describing lives that are very privileged and to some degree aimless. And as with most fiction built around historical figures, you already know how it has to end.