Few women in history have gotten a worse rap than Marie Antoinette, the queen of Louis XVI, whose carelessness and excesses, some say, helped precipitate the French Revolution, resulting in the loss of her husband, her power, and her head. Although scores of books have been written about her, Francine du Plessix Gray has given us another take in her fascinating historical novel, “The Queen’s Lover.’’
The story spans the years 1774 to 1810, covering both the revolution and the execution of the royal couple, and is told from the point of view of Count Axel von Fersen of Sweden and his sister, Sophie.
Fersen meets Marie at a Parisian masked ball in 1774. He is a handsome 19-year-old aristocrat and she, the beautiful, lively, teenage wife of the man who would become Louis XVI. They strike up a passionate and devoted relationship that will last until her execution about two decades later.
Gray, a biographer and novelist, based the book on Fersen’s journals and correspondence, and she seeds it with quotations from his papers. The narrative tracks Fersen through his journey with Lafayette’s forces to aid the American revolutionaries, his adventures for Sweden’s King Gustavus, his eventual reunion with Marie, and his assumption of the role of loyal family friend. It similarly details the conditions that led to the downfall of Louis and his queen.
THE QUEEN’S LOVER
Because this novel is not only about these French monarchs but also about this Swedish aristocrat, the last part of the book reveals more about Fersen’s feckless pursuit of love, his fall from grace in Sweden, and his own ghastly fate.
What surprised me was my own sympathy for Marie and Louis. Gray does a wonderful job of allowing us a peek into their personal lives, and they come across as believable, human, flawed, and, in the end, lovable, especially Louis, who was careless about his person, naive but genuinely kind, and interested in scholarly pursuits.
With a very light hand Gray enhances the Fersens’ narrative with some salient quotations, such as the observation from a friend’s wife that Marie Antoinette’s manner “had a kind of affability which did not allow us to forget she was a queen yet persuaded us that she’d forgotten all about it.” Or, when Louis was brought to trial and we learn that Gouverneur Morris, the American ambassador, wrote to Thomas Jefferson:
“It is strange that the mildest monarch who ever sat on the French throne, one who was precipitated from it precisely because he would not adopt the harsh measures of his predecessors, a man whom one can not charge with one criminal or cruel act, should be prosecuted as one of the most nefarious tyrants who ever disgraced the annals of human nature.”
Gray’s depiction of the royal couple’s last months — from the botched flight from Versailles and Louis’s trial and beheading, followed by the subsequent nine months before Marie’s execution — prove the amplitude of the historical novel at its best.
My problem was with Fersen, a cad worthy of comparison with Don Giovanni. He is pompous, egomaniacal, and such a snob that there are places where you feel Gray struggling to tell his tale with a straight face. Sophie’s sincere attempts to redeem Fersen in her parts of the narrative are the most heartfelt and raise the question that, for all her brother’s sexual braggadocio, Sophie may have been the love of his life.
Whether this was Gray’s intention, it leaves the reader wanting more, which is the best you can say for any novel.