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More to the story after 200 years of bad press

A selfish ruler, or an unjust victim of rage: Which is the true portrait of Marie?

October 22, 2006|Charles Taylor | Special to The Times

SOFIA COPPOLA'S picaresque and luxurious new biopic, "Marie Antoinette," has made the beheaded French queen as much a fixture of the spotlight as at any time since her death. Mixed reviews have followed the film since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and reading the negative ones makes it clear that if Marie is still talked about, she is not much known. For the naysayers, Marie really is the monster of privilege she was made out to be in the pamphlets that hounded her during her lifetime, the recklessly extravagant ruler who didn't care if her subjects starved as long as her luxuries continued unabated.

As Antonia Fraser reports in her splendid 2001 biography, "Marie Antoinette: The Journey," the basis for Coppola's film, Marie was actually just as criticized for her devotion to simplicity, manifested in her dress and the portraits she had painted (including one by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun that was criticized on just those grounds), as well as her disdain for the ludicrous protocols of life at Versailles.

It's no surprise that Fraser and the rest of Marie's biographers insist on these inconvenient facts. The striking thing is that many of the novelists who have taken Marie Antoinette as their subject are just as devoted to the truth about her, almost as if they're determined to make up for the slanders she suffered in her lifetime.

As a heroine of history or historical fiction, Marie Antoinette is irresistible. Sent to a foreign land at age 14 as diplomatic chattel in an arranged marriage at (and already known in France as L'Autrichienne -- the Austrian bitch); betrothed to a king-in-waiting too insecure (sexually and otherwise) to take much notice of her; too high-spirited to yield easily to the strictures of her regal new home; the subject of cruel gossip and pornographic parody almost from her arrival; an ill-prepared queen thrust onto the throne at 19; eventually a loving mother and happy wife and -- perhaps -- mistress to a dashing lover; then, in short order, the increasing -- and unjust -- focus of her nation's rage, prisoner, widow and, at 37, victim of the Terror.

How could such a life not be an inspiration for historical romance, and how could it not strike a chord in feminists, being the life of a woman taught that her duty was to obey, and then made the target of virulent misogyny by both the rabble and those -- such as Thomas Jefferson ("disdainful of restraint, indignant to all obstacles to her will") who should have known better. In the afterward to the paperback edition of her 2002 novel "Versailles," Kathryn Davis describes visiting the palace with her daughter and sinking "so deeply into the love object that at least for a spell you don't know where the loved one ends and you begin."

Davis' book is a carefully selected procession of Impressionist scenes that evokes Marie as foolish as well as brave, ruled (during her first years in France) by an inability to hide her true feelings, which is the blunt grace of adolescents and the thing that gets them in trouble. There are some lousy ideas in the novel, small playlets that are like excerpts from an oratorio you'd never want to read, and some flouncy prose. But Davis realizes you can't write Marie if, like those who recoil from her, you have a Puritan disdain for opulence. Davis renders Marie as someone captive in a dream.

The opening line of Sena Jeter Naslund's just-published novel of Marie Antoinette's life, "Abundance," warns you of what's coming next: "Like everyone, I am born naked." Where do you go from there? If you're Naslund, the answer is into romance novel gush dolled up in faux 18th century-ese: "Viewing the appeal of Venus, half-unclothed, I cannot help but wonder if I must wait in inspiring the puissance of my husband till my body reaches greater maturity."

There's no excuse for giving Marie the cringing, fluttering voice of the born victim when the best novel written about her, Victoria Holt's 1968 "The Queen's Confession," has everything you'd want from a historical romance and is admirably tough-minded to boot. Holt was one of several pen names used by British novelist Eleanor Hibbert (the most famous being Jean Plaidy). "The Queen's Confession," which sticks scrupulously to the historical facts, takes the form of Marie relating the tale of her life as she awaits execution. The older, wiser Marie looks back on her life, able to see what her naivete cost her, the black clouds she wrongly thought would blow over -- and Holt does it all without forcing the indignity of an apology on her heroine. That this wisdom comes with a sentence of death hanging over her gives this immensely readable book a tragic stature that grows as the novel continues.

*

Truth, in painful detail

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