Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Marie-Therese, Child of Terror

by Susan Nagel
Reviewed by Melissa

Summer is a time for fun, light books. Not for heady, scholarly biographies, even ones about fascinating characters. I learned this the hard way.

I was intrigued by the idea of this book: it's the story of Marie-Therese, daughter of Marie Antoinette. Nagel details a bit about Marie Antoinette's life, the birth of her children, the French Revolution, and then the remainder of Marie-Therese's life, most of which was spent in exile. To Nagel's credit, the book is well-written and well-researched. It's just that it's a lot to manage in one book, and I often found my mind wandering.

The first third of the book was very interesting. I liked the parts about Marie Antoinette and the revolution. The best story, hands down, was the reasons why Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI didn't have children for eight years. Marie-Therese's childhood was idyllic, the picture of a perfect princess life...until the French Revolution, that is. I don't think I've ever read the story of the revolution from the royals' point of view, and found myself pitying the poor -- well, not poor, but definitely abused -- family, especially the children. Nagel put them in a very sympathetic light: children uncertain about the future, fearing for their parents. For Marie-Therese and her brother Louis Charles the whole time leading up to the execution of their parents was horrible: no one they could trust, always living with a fear that their parents -- mother, especially -- could be taken and killed at any moment. Then they were thrown in the Temple Prison and separated; Marie-Therese was 14, her brother only 9. Marie-Therese had no idea when (or if) her family was executed. She was tormented by her jailers (though never violated), and finally released when she was 17.

It was at this point that my interest began to wane. While Marie-Therese became an smart and strong-willed woman, the rest of her life lacked the drama of her first 17 years; though arguably the life of any smart and strong-willed person contains a story worth telling, that doesn't mean they all have a life worthy of full biographic treatment, and post-Revolution Marie-Therese perhaps falls into this category. She spent much of the rest of her life in exile, after marrying her cousin, bopping around from country to country with King Louis XVIII, until finally settling in England. After Napoleon was defeated, she -- and her family -- was finally allowed back into France, where she spent the remainder of her years trying to get the Bourbon line back on the throne. At least I think that's what happened, because I stopped reading and skimmed this part. I wasn't in the mood for a heady biography, her life wasn't gripping enough, and while Nagel doesn't write in that dry, scholarly manner that invariably puts me to sleep, it wasn't entertaining enough to keep me awake either.

The afterword alluded to a mystery -- of the identity of The Dark Countess, who many people assumed was Marie-Therese -- and I suppose one of Nagel's purposes for writing this book was to debunk that theory, which according to the afterword, she did. Every once in a while, Nagel would include bits about The Dark Countess in the narrative, but they always felt out of place, even though I understood why they were there. I did feel that the "mystery" element was overplayed-- Nagel did her research well enough to make it seem that the mystery-makers were making a big deal out of nothing.

Perhaps I'll go back to Marie-Therese when the weather cools off and I'm not so distracted by the outside world. It would be a good book for a dark winter's day. Until then, though, I'll stick to fluff.

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