Monday, August 12, 2013

The Queen's Lover: A Character Study

24. The Queen's Lover by Francince du Plessix Gray,
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn

I don't often listen to audio books, but this may be the book that changed my mind.

The Queen's Lover had been on my TBR list since I read this review. Although after having read (listened to) the book, I disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. Don't read this book for its "wistful romance." Read it for its incredibly detailed, nuanced account of the French Revolution and Europe's response!

Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn voice the roles of Count Axel von Fersen and his sister Sophie, respectively. The division of the two voices in the book may have suited it particularly for audio. I also noticed that du Plessix Gray tended to repeat facts and recount moments. The effect was realistic, as that of an older man reminiscing, but may have proved too dull in a book, whereas the reminders proved less tedious when listened to. Sort of like the "pink fingers of Dawn" (my FAVORITE line from The Odyssey. Not.) Ballerini and Cronyn's voices were convincing as the characters down to their Frenchified pronunciations (they were Swedish but spoke French in the home and Axel spent a large portion of his life in France). Also, and perhaps unrelated to the book, both have unusually soothing intonations.

The title and its implications, as so often these days, is deceptive. It would be better titled A Biography of Marie Antoinette by Count Axel von Fersen and his Sister. Not as catchy, but more accurate. The novel does extend after the queen meets her tragic death (hope I'm not ruining this for anyone!), but it's more of an epilogue that fills in the remainder of the narrators' lives.

Is this a love story? I would say no, though there are legitimate arguments to be made for it. I would say instead that it is a memoir of a woman and her moment in time, by her lover. A subtle distinction to be sure, but the time du Plessix Gray's fictional Count spends on describing the setting, the pitiable King Louis XVI, and historical events in France and Sweden belie the idea that this is a novel merely about his love affair with Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, his "Toinette," his "Josephine." Their love is a backdrop to a larger story of a fatal misunderstanding about the rights and place of monarchs.

The account of Marie Antoinette's youth is dazzling; the parties, the gambling, the clothes, the operas; all are exquisite. And yet, as delightful as the frivolity is, there is something more touching in the account of her family's fall from grace. The qualities that made the queen seem light and frothy are the same that enabled her to meet disgrace and death with kindness and politesse, exemplified in her famous last words after stepping on her executioner's foot; "Pardon me , Monsieur, I did not mean to do it."

du Plessix Gray breathes new life into tired events, making the ill-fated flight to Verenn tight with suspense, despite its known ending. The less-well-known history of Count von Fersen adds another layer of interest to the reader, as he relates his other lovers, his travels, and his relationship with Gustavus III of Sweden. That king seems to deserve a book of his own! I don't know for sure, but du Plessix Gray's work appears to be impeccably well-researched. She includes several letters between Marie Antoinette and Count Axel, and while most of these are fictional, they are based on truth. Letters between the two, written in invisible ink and secret codes, lie still un-deciphered in the French National Archives.*

I recommend The Queen's Lover heartily, but not as a romance nor even really as fiction. It shines as a study in character, as a biography dressed up in compelling voices from the past. And I'd be happy to read more of the same from du Plessix Gray, perhaps she'll tackle Gustavus III in more depth next!

* The Correspondence can be found (in French) on page 18 of this document.

40 AP - Correspondance de Marie-Antoinette. Correspondance de Fersen.
440 AP 1 Dossier 1. Marie Antoinette.
Lettres de la reine Marie-Antoinette à Axel Fersen. Octobre 1791-janvier 1792.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, copies, la plupart transcrites en chiffre par Fersen
ou son secrétaire et annotées par lui. 28 juin 1791-24 juillet 1792.
Copies, par le baron Rudolf Klinckowström, de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, dont
les originaux ont été détruits par lui-même. Septembre 1791-juillet 1792.
Copies de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa sœur la reine d’Espagne, à l’impératrice
Catherine II de Russie, au prince Kaunitz, ambassadeur d’Autriche, et lithographie de la
dernière lettre de Marie-Antoinette à Madame Elisabeth, sa belle-sœur. Janvier-février
1792, octobre 1793.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa mère, l’impératrice Marie-Thérèse, à ses frères Joseph II
et Léopold II, à la duchesse de Polignac, au duc de Choiseul et autres. 1770-1791.
Note autographe de Marie-Antoinette et transcription autographe d’une lettre du
maréchal Frederich Fersen à son fils, Axel Fersen. 1789.
Dossier 2. Fersen.
Lettres de Fersen à Marie-Antoinette. 1788-1792.
Memoranda de Fersen au roi et à la reine. Mars-novembre 1791.
Pièces relatives à Varennes. Juillet 1791.
Pièces après la mort de Louis XVI et Marie-Antoinette. 1794-1804.
440 AP 2 Fourniture d’ouvrages, de gravures, bibelots et autres articles à la Reine MarieAntoinette et paiement de pensions et autres gratifications: notes et mémoires
comptables de Campan, secrétaire de la souveraine et lettres et reçus des fournisseurs.

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