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15 June 2012

Marie Antoinette reigns in DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW

The second novel in my historical fiction trilogy on the life of the doomed queen of France Marie Antoinette was published last month. DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW focuses on the fifteen years she reigned alongside her husband, Louis XVI, from the death of his grandfather Louis XV in May, 1774, to the days following the violent fall of the Bastille in July 1789.

A captivating novel of rich spectacle and royal scandal, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow spans fifteen years in the fateful reign of Marie Antoinette, France’s most legendary and notorious queen.

Paris, 1774. At the tender age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne alongside her husband, Louis XVI. But behind the extravagance of the young queen’s elaborate silk gowns and dizzyingly high coiffures, she harbors deeper fears for her future and that of the Bourbon dynasty.

From the early growing pains of marriage to the joy of conceiving a child, from her passion for Swedish military attaché Axel von Fersen to the devastating Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Marie Antoinette tries to rise above the gossip and rivalries that encircle her. But as revolution blossoms in America, a much larger threat looms beyond the gilded gates of Versailles—one that could sweep away the French monarchy forever.

Picking up, chronologically, where the first book in the trilogy, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, left off, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW covers a lot of ground, from Marie Antoinette's early years as queen when the public loved her to her struggles to consummate her marriage and bear France an heir to the hedonistic pastimes and pleasures that filled her lonely hours and offered solace and compensation for the one thing she desired most in the world--children--to a scandalous and clandestine love affair, to the disastrous "affair of the diamond necklace," which enmeshed her in the greatest con game of the century and although she was innocent, damaged her already tarnished reputation beyond measure.

France was broken before Marie Antoinette arrived at the age of fourteen, already the bride by proxy of the dauphin, the future Louis XVI. The entire court lived large, with each member of the royal family having their own satellite court and entourage. They even had their own separate kitchens. The first Two Estates, the clergy and the nobility (who held the lion's share of the wealth) did not pay taxes; consequently, the Third Estate -- everyone else -- was forced to foot the bill for just about everything, and when there were natural disasters, such as bad harvests, laborers and tradesmen had nothing to pay. Louis XV had already emptied the treasury long before Marie Antoinette got there, fighting the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Every time a progressive minister proposed levying taxes on the first Two Estates, the Parlements (the judicial bodies that voted to ratify a king's edicts, and which were comprised of clergy and nobility), voted down the proposal. It was akin to a U.S. President proposing that taxes be raised on the wealthy, and the congressmen and senators who represent the interests of the wealthiest citizens consistently voting down the bill so that the wealthiest citizens continued to be tax exempt and the poorest, who could least afford it, kept getting shafted. And yet the poorest citizens didn't realize that it was the Parlements who were standing in the way of tax relief. So they blamed the king. And they blamed Louis (and Marie Antoinette) because their heads were being filled with propaganda against them.

Additionally, because Marie Antoinette was a foreigner, and came from Austria, which had been an enemy of France for 950 years prior to the treaty that paved the way for her marriage, she became the scapegoat. She was even mistrusted by others at court who never endorsed her marriage in the first place.  The poor woman couldn't do anything right. 

Yes, she spent a lot of money, but so did everyone else at court, especially the king's youngest brother, the comte d'Artois, whose gambling debts were legion. (Artois was detested by the people as well, and he was one of the people falsely accused of being one of Marie Antoinette's lovers). But Marie Antoinette's shopaholicism was not responsible for bankrupting France. As I mentioned above, France was already in deep financial straits and several dozen gowns and pairs of shoes barely made a dent in the budget -- but they were visible signs of extravagance that the people could relate to

France's commitment in 1778 to aid the American colonists in their bid for independence from the British crown also contributed mightily to her financial woes. A series of bad harvests in the late 1780s compounded matters, and those acts of  Nature, added to the plans to increase taxes on those who truly didn't have the cash to pay, spurred the commoners to heed the calls to arms from the demagogues. 

What many people don't realize is that the seeds of the French Revolution were sown from the top down. Right from the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette alienated many of the courtiers of the old guard who had been accustomed to certain perquisites during the reign of Louis XV. She detested court etiquette and not only downsized her entourage when she became queen, but was determined not to surround herself with the "toxic" people who had derided her when she was dauphine, preferring to maintain a few close friends around her who had not earned their perqs through centuries of service to the crown. So, she began by alienating the aristocracy (some of whom had their own printing presses in their apartments at Versailles) and never imagined her actions would come back to bite her. 

Add to that the liberty fever that had imbued the French noblemen who'd served as the commanders of mercenary regiments in North America during our War of Independence. These enlightened men had already read the treatises of the 18th c. philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. They saw that self-governance could work in America and wanted a taste of it themselves.

DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW offers an intimate window into the queen's personal and family life as well as a view of the opulent Bourbon court and the schemers behind the scenes who contributed to the public opinion of Marie Antoinette as the symbol for everything that was wrong with the kingdom. The novel charts all of the events throughout Marie Antoinette and Louis' reign that led to the storming of the Bastille. There are sunny, verdant days, and there are gloomy gray ones -- as the title notes, splendors and sorrows. 

What's your take on Marie Antoinette? Do you think she was a scapegoat?  Do you think her actions (and Louis') had anything whatsoever to do with the French Revolution or was it inevitable?


2 Comments:

Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Hi Juliet - what a fascinating summary of Marie Antoinette's world! I must read Days Of Splendor, Days Of Sorrow.

I researched Louis XVI's court in depth, since the first third of my Bond of Fire is set there during the last few years before the Fall of the Bastille. I learned a great deal about the era - and it's politics - by how Marie Antoinette's wardrobe evolved over time. I was also stunned by the scurrilous cartoons of her. Boy, were they widespread! But their distribution and countervailing censorship issues also hints at how the seeds for revolution were born.

IMHO, a different man than Louis XVI, someone more clear sighted and ruthless, might have headed off revolution or at least moderated its effects. (After all, how much did Louis XIV really have to work with when he arrived on the throne?) But such a king would need to clearly see the threats and then take the necessary steps to build residual loyalty to him - even if it meant locking up his foreign wife, or cutting subsidies to useless relatives. But that's not what Louis XVI was trained for - and he seems to have always faded in a crisis.

Marie Antoinette had no inherent constituency because she was Austrian; her politicial negatives would always outweigh the positives. (But oh, the glamour! And the intelligence!)

The Austrian and Prussian monarchies survived this revolution. Not necessarily in an elegant fashion but it took another century before a cataclysm swept them away.

Just my two cents...

9:55 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Your excellent points, Diane, lead me to another ... Marie Antoinette's sister Charlotte (Maria Carolina, Queen of the Two Sicilies -- who really ruled her kingdom, rather than her husband, King Ferdinand, who was useless) transformed from an "enlightened autocrat" of the 18th c. into a ruthless one when the revolution came to southern Italy, and in the wake of her brother-in-law's execution, even before her sister was executed. Maria Carolina cracked down on all the progressive societies that she had once championed, because they had become hotbeds of revolution.

Louis loved Marie Antoinette and he wasn't about to lock her up or banish her -- and for what reason, anyway? To appease a bunch of radical hotheads? She wasn't the reason France was bankrupt. And he knew it. But he was a weak sovereign who truly believed his people were "good." (his word). And in this respect he was very naive. Ironically, he lost because he kept trying to be a nice guy and refused to become a tyrant.

10:07 AM  

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