Enfant Terrible article for the New York Times by Amanda Foreman

Marie Antoinette
The Last Queen of France.
By Evelyne Lever.
Translated by Catherine Temerson

Voltaire claimed that ”history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.” Had he lived to witness the French Revolution, he would have seen his idea of a tableau transformed into a continuous theater of death. All who took part in the revolution became players in their own tragedy. Some fought against their fate, others stumbled blindly into it. But Marie Antoinette seemed to discover her grand destiny on the scaffold of the guillotine.

She had always wanted to be an actress. Before the revolution, she had her own little theater, where a select audience was allowed to watch her perform. She loved to be the center of attention. Ironically, it took a revolution to grant the queen her dearest wish.

France became her stage, Europe her audience, while in her trial she had her greatest role. Defenders of the French queen have painted her in the pastel colors of a saintly martyr; detractors, in the stripes of a debauched nymphomaniac. But as Evelyne Lever points out in her biography ”Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France,” she was neither.

Marie Antoinette was born in 1755, the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the Emperor Francis I. She was a clever, talented girl but neither clever nor talented enough to master the French court. She was a sensitive, emotional woman, but not sensitive enough to realize her effect on others or to realize when she was being manipulated.

In many ways her character was not unlike another tragic queen’s: Mary Queen of Scots, who also possessed the heart of a ruler but not the shrewdness. All of Maria Theresa’s children were subject to her emotional blackmail. She would be solicitous to the point of smothering, and then demand total obedience as just recompense for her care and toil. She enjoyed showing off their accomplishments but did not necessarily like them as children. They were rarely let out from the secluded world of the nursery, especially after the death of her husband in 1765.

As a group, Maria Theresa’s progeny grew up to be rebellious and resentful of authority and yet dependent on praise. All the sisters, in particular, had stronger ties of loyalty to one another than to their husbands. Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, she was given over to a lenient governess who let her charge skip lessons.

After the empress managed what Lever describes as the ”crowning achievement of her nuptial politics,” uniting the Hapsburgs with the Bourbons by arranging to marry her youngest daughter to the French dauphin, she was shocked to discover that her 14-year-old daughter was backward and immature. She quickly ordered Marie Antoinette’s bed to be placed in her own apartments and began a last-minute intensive program of instruction. The adolescent was then packed off to France with a long and detailed set of instructions, the first and foremost being to serve the interests of Austria.

Lever glosses over the hell of French court life, and the special place reserved within it for foreign princesses. But it has never been a secret that royal wives were little better than political hostages. Their unenviable lot is poignantly caught by the last words of Louis XIV’s wife. ”All my life, for as long as I’ve been queen,” she said as she lay dying, ”I haven’t really had one single day of happiness.”

Her daughter-in-law, Marie Leszcynska, was no better off. Derided in Versailles as ”the Polack,” she lived in virtual confinement since nobody could be bothered to speak to her. Every moment of a queen’s day belonged to the unending routine of court life, from the clothes she wore to the time she spent eating her food. Every word she uttered had to be phrased in accordance with the royal code. Her friends were scrutinized, her letters opened.

The queens were pawns in an elaborate game of political one-upmanship and social climbing that had many players and no clear goal. They were powerless yet symbolically important, enveloped by etiquette and yet utterly alone. These perpetual prisoners could never let down their guards, not even among their children. ”If I say two words to my children,” complained the sister-in-law of Louis XIV, ”they have to endure half an hour’s interrogation so that what I said may be discovered.”

This was the world that Marie Antoinette entered in April 1770. Perhaps her fate was sealed then. Very few young girls, and particularly one so nave and vulnerable, could have flourished in the toxic atmosphere surrounding the royal family. Louis Auguste, the oafish dauphin, paid little attention to her; his brothers despised him and therefore resented her. The king, Louis XV, was too busy to notice her; only his embittered unmarried sisters had any time for Marie Antoinette, and that was because they wished to make use of her in their own court intrigues. She turned to the two people she believed she could trust: the Austrian ambassador, Florimond, Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, and her mother. Mercy was in fact a spy who reported straight to the empress, while Marie Antoinette’s mother was perfectly prepared to destroy her daughter’s happiness if it increased Austria’s strength.

The French nicknamed Marie Antoinette ”the Austrian,” an even greater insult than ”the whore” in nationalist France, because of her all too obvious attempts at influencing the king on Austria’s behalf.

Evelyne Lever gives us the facts of the queen’s existence, but rarely the background, leaving the reader to wonder why this extravagant, frivolous woman ever excited the least sympathy. According to Lever, the queen was snobbish, uncultured, vain and selfish. ”Marie Antoinette continued to lead her life as she saw fit,” she notes disapprovingly, ”devoting a minimal amount of time to her state obligations.” Was it pure selfishness that prompted Marie Antoinette’s behavior, or was it part of a pattern of desperate resistance against her overbearing mother? Maria Theresa’s letters to her daughter were masterpieces of manipulation; exacting one moment, devastating the next. They dispensed and withheld love according to her own logic.

As the young queen matured into womanhood she discovered that her husband was not only boorish and limited, but also a sexual inadequate who failed to realize that procreation required ejaculation. Marie Antoinette’s response to her situation, as a queen with puppet masters but no guide, as a woman of intelligence but no training, was to struggle against social convention. But, like Mary Queen of Scots, she fought without a battle plan. She fell in love with Count Fersen, made herself a leader of French fashion, gambled heavily with her rakish friends and established her own little kingdom at the Chteau de St.-Cloud, where she set the rules.

Lever sees all this as conclusive proof of the queen’s weakness of character. But for good measure she throws in allegations of maternal neglect. The fact that this apparently unfeeling woman lost her hair and looks after the death of her eldest son does not make it to the defense. As her life became more difficult, acting attracted Marie Antoinette because it fulfilled so many unmet emotional needs. Her desire to be a heroine was shocking to the French — who had only known their queens as silent baby-makers. That was why, during the ”diamond necklace affair” in 1785, the public was perfectly prepared to believe that Marie Antoinette might wander around the grounds of Versailles in the middle of the night, having meetings in disguise behind trees, in order to obtain the most expensive necklace in Europe. If she was headstrong enough to wear her own clothes rather than court dress, then who knew what else this depraved woman might do. Her half-conscious battle to assert her individuality was an unexpected gift to the growing enemies of the court. Pamphleteers, many of them supported by the king’s brothers, started a vicious campaign of calumny, but the more they attacked, the more she resisted.

Perhaps in France it is not politically correct to imagine that kings and queens have inner lives. Yet a biography that is all bias and no reflection rarely succeeds.

Lever has no imaginative sympathy for her subject and little understanding of what governs human behavior. Fortunately, there are several biographies of Marie Antoinette in print, and one by Antonia Fraser that is expected to appear next year. The mystery is why Farrar, Straus & Giroux should publish this book now, since it came out in France in 1991, and even in that country has been superseded by new research.

American readers have waited this long for a new biography of Marie Antoinette; they may as well wait a bit longer.

Copyright© 2000 New York Times