Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
By Sena Jeter Naslund
Morrow, 545 pp., $26.95
Marie Antoinette is the flavor of the month. Antonia Fraser's "Marie Antoinette," Sofia Coppola's film biography, and a recent PBS documentary have all taken up the charming, frivolous, doomed queen of France. And now she is the fascinating subject, and unfortunately the shortcoming, of Sena Jeter Naslund's beautifully written biographical novel, "Abundance," told in the voice of the queen herself.
When two of her elder sisters die, the youngest daughter of the powerful Maria Theresa of Austria is chosen to marry the Sun King's grandson. In a ceremony of silken barbarity, Maria Antonia is stripped naked, deprived of family, friends, and even her dog, and crosses the frontier to become Marie Antoinette, Frenchwoman. To her dismay, her Louis Auguste prefers hunting and blacksmithing to being king -- or to having sex with his new bride. No wonder; she is only 14, he 15, entirely inexperienced, and suffering from a painful dysfunction.
Naslund is known for her historical novels, most recently "Ahab's Wife." Like that bestseller, "Abundance" has a nearly picture-perfect sense of historical detail. Courtesans watch opera from behind a grille; women are swathed in enormous dust jackets while their wedding cakes of hair are powdered; a fan, reminding "Toinette" that "others are always listening," is painted with ears from which hang real earrings.
But the world of "Ahab's Wife" was the whole wide sea; the world of "Abundance" 's Marie Antoinette is Versailles. Marie Antoinette is a diamond cog in a machine that is breaking down. She is always watched; her marriage bed, her dressing and undressing, take place entirely in public and are governed by elaborate rules. Her most trusted counselor, Count Mercy, spies on her and reports to her mother. Being allowed a day in Paris is an adventure; she is fascinated to glimpse through a window one of her subjects "perfectly well--complete--without my presence"; and in all her life she will never see the sea.
Her role demands miracles. She must consolidate the Franco-Austrian alliance; she must gain her demanding mother's approval; she must give France an heir. It would take Maria Theresa herself to negotiate this, and Marie Antoinette is only a sentimental teenager, basing a lifelong friendship with the Princesse de Lamballe on a mutual love of kittens, puppies, and violets. She writes with difficulty and almost never reads; the pretty gilded bindings in her library dignify 18th-century versions of "Love's Tender Fury."
"Without cleverness or talents," as her mother says of her, Marie Antoinette falls back on charm. A diamond cog must glitter. She has a credit card with no limits, and she senses that her role is to charm her adopted country. On the way to Versailles she swears on the blue silk curtains of her carriage that she will act with "grandeur . . . modesty . . . and sweetness," and vows that "my greatest pleasure will always be to give my subjects pleasure." Politics is beyond her; jewels and pretty clothes, gambling and house building, are easier to control; but her greatest sense of power comes from the love of her people, "the mighty roar of love" that she hears in the streets of Paris.
At 19 and 20, Marie Antoinette and Louis become king and queen of France. Foreign adventures, including support of the American Revolution, and the wastefulness of the French court have already made their situation dangerous. Financial ruin and revolutionary ideas stalk France, but they barely penetrate the tapestries of Versailles. Accused of ruining France with her extravagance, Marie Antoinette behaves as appropriately as she knows how: She fires her private dressmaker and has her portrait painted wearing only simple jewelry. "I have done nothing to them. I have cut the positions in my house by 173 people," she protests as "the mighty roar" of the people's voice turns against her.
Deficits, foreign wars, a court for the benefit of the few rich cronies of the king, and, at the center, the emblematic person who doesn't understand what's going on. Does it seem familiar? The current interest in pre revolutionary France is no accident. But a history of our time, seen from the perspective of, say, George W. Bush, would be an unsatisfactory vision indeed, a story set largely on a Texas ranch with disasters looming vaguely in the distance.
And that is the inescapable difficulty of seeing Marie Antoinette through her own eyes. "Abundance" is intelligent, beautifully written, and uncomfortably relevant, and Naslund makes her heroine convincing and even sympathetic. But, though "Toinette" becomes more political, more cynical, even Naslund can't make Marie Antoinette see enough of the picture. Through the pretty telescope-in-reverse of her eyes, the revolution becomes small and far away, a momentary disturbance in the eternal history of the kings of France. In those eyes, the reader is trapped, if beautifully trapped; all we see is what she finds eternally consoling, the ribbons, the jewels, the little dogs, and the eye itself, herself constantly watching herself, obliviously still the queen of France without whom no scene exists.
Sarah Smith's most recent book is "Chasing Shakespeares." She is working on a book about the aftermath of the Titanic disaster.