A Royal Mystery

The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette

by Chantal Thomas, translated from the French by Julie Rose
Zone Books, 255 pp., $26.00

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

by Evelyne Lever, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 357 pp., $30.00

Lives” of kings and queens, when they belong to the category of the biographie romancée, where facts are a little hazy and dialogues and private thoughts are freely invented, are usually shelved by libraries under “Biography.” More serious and scholarly royal biographies, on the other hand, tend to get placed under “History.” But ought they to be so? The life of Marie-Antoinette raises this question forcibly.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, in view of the decline of Spain and the growing friendship between Prussia and Great Britain, France decided on a radical revision of its alliances, and it came to an understanding with its longstanding enemy, Austria. To cement this, it was arranged between Louis XV and the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa that the French dauphin, Louis-Auguste, the King’s grandson, should marry the Empress’s daughter Marie-Antoinette; and in 1770, with much pomp, the fourteen-year-old Marie-Antoinette was escorted to Versailles for this purpose. She had never seen her prospective husband before (though she had already been married to him by proxy), and for both of them (the dauphin being not much older than herself) the marriage bed would turn out to be a problem. He was a clumsy, awkward, inhibited fellow, and for some years he found it impossible to consummate the marriage. He suffered from phimosis, or an overtight foreskin, which made copulation physically painful to him. But anyway, for whatever reason (and there could be many), Marie-Antoinette alarmed him. Also, or so it seems, he was not all that eager to be king, being afflicted by two brothers—the Comte de Provence and the Comte d’Artois—who dinned it into him how much better they would be in the position. Marie-Antoinette, on the contrary, had at least the grace and outward style of royalty.

Very possibly, of all subjects for a royal biography, Marie-Antoinette has been the out-and-out favorite. Her appeal is certainly not far to seek. Her story and that of her husband, as actors in and bewildered victims of the enormous event that lay in store for France, are most poignant and harrowing. It is a story that will be well known to readers of the present review, and I think one can suggest the feel of it by the “mosaic” method.

Horace Walpole, writing to the Countess of Upper Ossory on December 1, 1790, described his first view of Marie-Antoinette thus: “I saw her when [she was] Dauphiness. She was going after the late King to chapel, and shot through the room like an aerial being, all brightness and grace and without seeming to touch earth—’vera incessu patuit dea!’” The Comte de Tilly, who at one period was her page and who idolized her, noted that she had “two distinctive gaits in walking, one firm, rather hurried and always imposing, the other more gentle and swinging…. No one has ever curtsied with so much grace, greeting ten people with a single inclination, and, by look and the pose of the …

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