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Alberto M. Barral
- Publié sur Amazon.com
This biography was the first well researched effort to present the life of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette in alignement to the facts and also adding psychological insight.
Prior to this effort all renditions tended to idiolize her as a martyr or deride her as the personification of all the evils of the old regime. She was neither of the two, but as correctly assesed here, a quite ordinary, uneducated woman that led an extraordinary life due to the historical components that surrounded her fate as a member of a ruling house.
Not just ordinary, she was also very naive and not at all intelligent, as when she arrived in France it took seven years for her to get pregnant and it would have taken more had her brother not pushed the husband into the operation that he desperately needed to be able to perform. This is an incredible contrast with a similar situation encountered, much earlier by Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II and did not get pregnant for several years, but Catherine was a Medici and she found a solution to that problem, and all the others that came with her long reign. It is not the youth and lack of experience that were as important as the willingness, the initiative that is missing from her character. This is also the reason that she was almost illiterate when she arrived in France, as shown by her primitive handwriting when she signed her marriage document. The book is particularly accurate in relating the transformation that occurred in this otherwise ordinary woman when the sufferings of the Revolution brought out a character of great depth and tragic dimension that completely stole the limelight from the Revolution with her tragic trial and execution. If the queen's life were made into an opera, the best arias would be reserved for the last act, because it is then that she truly meets her destiny. In a completely unexpected situation, the spendrift, capricious queen turned into a figure worthy of the best of Racine's tragic heroines, her strength of character, the nobility of her every move form the time of the assult to Versailles till her death, is a unique trajectory in a spiritual transformation that to this day has made her a fascinating, unforgettable character. This is most probably the reason that her character is so controversial to this day in France, for Marie Antoinette managed to be a perfect queen when it was least expected of her, and surprised herself, and history by completely humilating the Revolution without intending to do so. The sadistic cruelty, petit-bourgeois pettiness and abusive violence and hatred that characterized the Revolution is all too exposed in the record with her. We understand the people of France were hungry, downtrodden and frustrated by generations of complete neglect from their leaders, and we sympathise with their desire for freedom and improvement, but it is nevertheless hard to believe that the rabble, and the lowest denominator in decency so quickly dominated the movement and called all the shots from the very day of the assult to the Bastille in July 1789 when they proceeded to butcher the surrendering officers in charge, to Robespierre's execution in July 1794 were five long years of violence and terror.
As Zweig understands and explains so well in the last chapters, Marie Antoinette was not equipped to understand what had happened either intellectually or through education. She was therefore unfair to the Revolutionaries in the sense that she was unable to accept moderation and reform, which were motivated by a just cause of social improvement and wanted better for their country than the ruinous, inefficient and financially chaotic estate she and Louis XVI inherited from the real culprit if there was ever any, of the disaster, the indolent, selfish, egocentric and completely misguided Louis XV who was at least smart enough to realize and say, at the end of his (unfortunately) long, wasted life "After me, the Deluge". She saw the Revolution as a rebellion, a sign of the wrath of God perhaps for her past sins, but never as a social change that was overdue and necessary, she could not have understood, from her isolated and sheltered perspective, plus more importantly, it was not her job to do so, she married the king but was NOT the ruler herself, and aside from the myths created by the pamphlets, her husband did have a mind of his own and did not automatically do what she suggested or wanted.
As explained here, it was the natural incompetence of the king that prevented any chance of appropriate governing for the hard times they faced, even in a prosperous era he would have been an impediment as he never wanted, as it is clarified in the book, to be king in the first place. He was a quiet, good intentioned man that was happiest making clocks and locks. This image could have been an excellent one to transition the monarchy from the fairy tale nightmare of denial of Louis XV's reign into a modern constitutional state, and Marie Antoinette would have adored the role of simpler, homier queen, but this never happened. The king was too weak and unmotivated to do anything, or enough of anything, but what was worse, he blocked everyone who wanted to, from doing it also. France had in her past kings that were completely dominated by capable ministers: Louis XIII and Richilieu being the most obvious example, so the natural ambition that was very much present in both his brothers and the Duc D'Orleans were never utilized and eventually they turned against him, thus weakening the system further and providing the first primary impulse for the avalanche. The way he handled the famous affair of the necklace was perfect in showing all the deficiencies in his character. Readers may forget for example that at the time Talleyrand, the greatest diplomat of France, was already a bishop and could have been made a minister/advisor, there was no lack of talent around, but the king was attracted to mediocrity and consistently selected poor choices for all the important positions. Moreover, the lapse of time between 1774 and 1789 is long enough for SOME change to have ocurred but nothing was done till it was too late.
The passages that explain her relationship with Count Fersen and clarify the rumors about her suppossed lesbian affairs are excellent because we understand totally the intimate aspects of her life, how her friendships were maligned by a press avid for her destruction and defamation, because it served perfectly into their political motives. We also understand that this woman, after fulfilling her duty as a wife and queen, had to find an emotional support that her husband could never provide. It is also important to note that the entire episode of the escape to Varennes was excellently organized by Fersen, and almost met with success but for the king's lack of decision and strength of character. Even when they were detained he could have bullied the post master and gotten away, but it is a sad episode when inbreeding has produced a creature that can not even fight for survival, which is what we see instead.
The closing chapter on the trial and execution is a masterpiece of theatrical reconstruction, we can feel the oppressiveness of those horrible months between the king's execution and her own, particularly in recounting the painful separation from her son, then her total isolation at La Conciergerie. The magnificent last stand at her trial where the women present give her an ovation is all the proof we need as to why she has become an inmortal figure of history, but we also see it in the letter that she wrote to the king's sister, a letter which she never received, but that has survived as a testament to a new station in her life she herself never would have ambitioned or suspected, true greatness.
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I owned a copy of this book in my teens, but somewhere along the line it was lost, strayed or stolen. My primary reason for acquiring a new copy was nostalgia; I also wanted my collection to include all the books I could identify about this tragic woman. Readers should be aware that Zweig's work has long since been superseded, and rightly so. Zweig was a novelist and cultural writer, but he never studied historical method and was heavily influenced by non-historians, with the almost unavoidable result that his work on Marie Antoinette, though an excellent "read," is deeply flawed as a work of history.
Zweig was a friend and associate of Sigmund Freud, and his biography of Marie Antoinette bears the imprint of Freud's ideas, which were new and invigorating when Zweig's study of Marie Antoinette appeared (1932). Zweig's thesis, that sexual frustration in the seven years of the queen's unconsummated marriage led to her flighty, spendthrift behavior, is unmistakably Freudian in its inspiration. That alone would not limit the book's credibility, but in his eagerness to offer an intellectually "modern" interpretation of Marie's life, Zweig juggled his evidence, highlighting documents that would support his theory and suppressing others available to him that contradicted it.
The most blatant example of this historical fudging involves the explanation Zweig advances for Louis XVI's failure to consummate his marriage for seven years. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Zweig quotes a letter to Madrid from the Spanish ambassador at Versailles; because of the text's intimate nature, early editions of Zweig's book discreetly left the letter in the original Spanish. It reports gossip that Louis' foreskin was tight and inelastic, so it could not retract properly and made intercourse painful. This condition is known medically as phimosis, and is routinely corrected by circumcision. Zweig argues that fear of the discomfort of adult circumcision led Louis to avoid the surgery until he was virtually ordered to undergo it by Marie Antoinette's brother, Emperor Josef II, during the latter's visit to Versailles in 1777.
Properly translated, the Spanish envoy's letter acknowledges from its first words that the envoy was only reporting gossip, not fact. Zweig never mentioned a second letter from the same envoy, sent immediately after the one Zweig does quote, in which the envoy unreservedly withdrew his first report. In other words, there is no factual basis for the belief that Louis XVI suffered with phimosis. Zweig's popularity as a novelist, however, and his assertion of an enlightened psychological interpretation, gave his argument undue weight. The belief that Louis XVI finally underwent circumcision in 1777 remained enshrined as fact in historical writings until the 1960s. It was then realized that the king's own diary proves that he never stopped riding to the hunt at any time in 1777. After such an operation he would have needed several weeks to recuperate, during which the pain caused to such an incision by riding horseback would have prevented him from hunting. But he never interrupted his activities in the field. The myth that Louis was only able to consummate his marriage after such an operation is now dismissed by Marie Antoinette's biographers (e.g. the most recent works, by Evelyne Lever and Antonia Fraser).
The simple fact is that Louis was an incompetent boudoir athlete. The true outcome of Josef II's visit to Versailles in 1777 was the realization that Louis was perfectly capable of intercourse but did no more than initiate the process. Once he inserted Tab A into Slot B, he lay inert for a few minutes and then withdrew without accomplishing anything that might have led to conception. Josef complained that both Louis and Antoinette were "complete fumblers" and that Marie herself was so disinterested in the whole business that she had remained virtuous not from pious reflection, but from an inborn disinclination to involve herself in bedchamber activities. Zweig never mentions the letter in which Josef shared this information with his brother Leopold. (Zweig, no historian, did little research for the book, but relied on assistants who went to archives to collect information. The material they provided survives among his papers, however, to show that he was probably aware of material that contradicts his argument.) Zweig does not refer to Antoinette's letters to her mother that report Louis initiated his odd variation on coitus interruptus in 1773, 3 years after his marriage. (For discussion, see Cronin's _Louis and Antoinette_.) Those letters, which refer to an audience with Louis XV in which the couple reported that they had consummated their marriage, make it clear that they thought that what he was doing did truly consummate the marriage. They remained thus deluded, or deluded themselves, until Josef enlightened Louis in 1777.
It must be admitted, too, that Zwieg was not well served by those who translated his book into English or edited it in that language. In the first paragraph of Chapter XII, for example, Zweig quotes from Marie Antoinette's letter to her mother of 19 August 1777 which, in the US edition, reads: "As regards my virgin state, it is unfortunately still the same." This is not what Zweig wrote. The original German text would correctly read, in translation: "As regards my [virgin] state, it is unfortunately still the same." In other words, Zweig himself inserted the word "jungfrauliche" (virgin) into the text, to be sure his readers were on track with his intended interpretation. He correctly used square brackets to indicate the word was his insertion, but his translators (or perhaps his US editors) removed the brackets, wrongly making it seem that Antoinette referred to herself as a virgin. She assured her mother that Louis was becoming more attentive to her, a major improvement. In fact it was no more than a few days later that the king finally sealed the deal; in a letter of 30 August 1777, Antoinette told her mother that her marriage had been "thoroughly consummated" more than a week earlier---so what Zweig calls "the undefended fortress" was captured sometime between 19 and 22 August 1777. Unfortunately Zweig then goes on to quote another letter from that same gossipy Spanish envoy, claiming that the great event took place on 25 August. But given Antoinette's first-hand account, which must be preferred, it happened no later than 22 August. Zweig does not seem to have noticed the discrepancy between Marie Antoinette's report of "more than 8 days" before 30 August and the Spanish envoy's claim of 25 August; both dates are still there to be seen in Zweig's account.
In addition to Zweig's dubious handling of his limited choice of documents, there are outright errors of fact here. A random case is his statement that on the scaffold, the executioner "thrust her into position, kneeling, with her throat in the lower half of the round." The guillotine used during the Terror in Paris did not make its victims kneel. The apparatus included a sliding plank that stood upright while the condemned was tied to it; then the plank was tilted over on its framework and slid forward to bring the victim's throat into the bottom portion of the window formed when the upper half of the wooden collar was lowered into place on the back of the neck. Zweig's description of the recovery of the queen's remains in 1816 is also erroneous, implying as it does that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were buried in mass graves in the Cemetery of the Madeleine. Most victims of the Terror buried in that cemetery were, indeed, thrown into long trenches, but the king and queen were, on orders of the governing National Convention, buried in separate graves 10 feet deep, liberally covered with quicklime to hasten dissolution of the remains. It is also untrue that the location of these graves was unknown; a witness to their burials, who watched from an upstairs window in a nearby house, noted the sites, subsequently cared for them with great reverence, and in 1816 guided searchers to the precise locations. True, as Zweig says, the quicklime slaked into hard layers that did help to identify the monarchs' graves. But Zweig then gratuitously says that only "a handful of pale dust" remained of the queen's body. As Antonia Fraser correctly reports, the queen's bones, including the skull, were intact, along with some of her hair and the garters she wore to her death.
The used copy I purchased of the original US edition (1933) is in immaculate condition; the only blemish of note, if it can be called that, is an inscription by a former owner of the date of purchase or gift (4 January 1939). This edition includes the illustrations that are not found in all US editions. Here again I must note a slip by Zweig or his editors: facing p. 414 are 2 portraits of the queen, one painted when the towering hairstyles associated with her were in fashion, the other allegedly painted from life while she was confined in the Conciergerie awaiting trial and execution. The earlier portrait is identified as a study by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun; it is in fact by Duplessis, the court artist at the time of Louis XVI's accession (1774). Duplessis had done a similar portrait of Antoinette in 1772, when she was still Dauphine, and at that time he did not sanitize the slight physical imperfections in her appearance---protruding eyes, high and uneven forehead, aquiline nose, heavy jaw and jutting lower lip---that were often unfavorably noted by the queen's contemporaries. In 1774, however, Duplessis was dealing with the Queen of France and his discreet camouflaging of these features are a model of diplomatic plastic surgery without surgery. True, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun later became Antoinette's favorite portraitist, and it is probable that most of her portraits of the queen took as their model the Duplessis sketch we see in Zweig's book. But the authenticity of the supposed Conciergerie portrait is subject to considerable doubt, for the simple reason that she was allowed few if any personal visitors there, and at that time there would have been no reason to allow her to sit for a portrait. Whether it was painted from life is doubtful. It appears to be one of many "copies" of a "portrait" by a Polish artist, Kucharski, who had begun a portrait of the queen from life in spring 1791. Kucharski's work was halted by the ill-fated flight to Varennes in June 1791 and that portrait (which survives) was never finished. Kucharski later painted an imagined likeness of the queen in widowhood for which she did not pose, and many "copies" of that "portrait" of the queen in her black weeds were produced during the Bourbon Restoration, when idealization of the dead queen was politically sensible, and many monarchists wanted some memorial of her.
In sum, it's undeniable that Zweig's gifts as a novelist allowed him to pen an attractive and easily read text, factors that enhanced its appeal to readers and also seemed to confirm his veracity. His limited abilities as an historian, however, prevented him from giving his readers a trustworthy account of this unfairly traduced woman.