In the summers of my youth, I devoured my father’s old children’s books. Among these was a collection of historical novels from the 1950s, each with the more unsavory details neatly excised. My favorite was the one about Marie Antoinette, which blithely skimmed over the sordid rumors that surrounded her, and made her seem like a lovely, charming girl, tormented by the woeful weight of nobility. Despite remarks such as “let them eat cake” for which she is so often derided, it is easy to sympathize with Antoinette if she is shown in the right light. She was a teenage girl thrust into a foreign world and forced to become the symbol of a doomed monarchy. She was never interested in helping to rule a country, and was poorly suited to it under any circumstances; she was unable to dissolve her sense of self into the emblematic role she was given, and so could not diffuse the resentment that the public felt towards her. In any case, no amount of appropriate or clever behavior on her part could have prevented France’s spiral into violent revolution. In this sense, she is a tragic figure. In its own way, the white-washed 1950s biography I read about her picked up on this element of her character, and so does Kathryn Davis’ new novel, Versailles, which is written as Marie Antoinette’s surreal posthumous account of her own life.
Versailles begins with Antoinette as a teenage bride, sent from her family in Austria to France, a country she found strange and often disconcerting. The novel discusses her assimilation (or lack thereof) into the court at Versailles; her relationship with her husband Louis XVI, with whom she shared a general lack of enthusiasm for the throne; Louis’s long period of impotence, which led to rumors of her infidelity when she finally became pregnant; her love affair with the Swedish Axel Fersen; her transition into motherhood; her vague awareness of France’s continuous descent into chaos; and finally, her arrest, imprisonment, and execution. Davis works hard to make Antoinette a sympathetic, thoughtful character and to avoid the salacious speculation and vindictiveness that so often surrounds her. Davis’s Antoinette refuses to reveal details of any of her sexual relationships besides the one with Louis, and dismisses rumors about her supposed promiscuity and lesbianism. Davis also strives to explain how dreaminess, confusion, and misinformation led to some of Antoinette’s most infamous blunders.
Davis pursues her narrative in an overtly poetic voice laced with musings about the nature of fate, happiness, and life in general. Unfortunately, she rarely achieves the vivid originality and grace of good poetry; instead, her style tends towards a mixture of flowery similes (“Like the beautiful gauze-winged dragonfly imprisoned in amber”) and rather trite scraps of philosophical speculation (“Hope is the ability to imagine other ways out, at least when you’re young. Later it changes into something else”). Some of the points Davis makes about the confining, objectifying nature of nobility are almost laughably self-evident. Does anyone really need to be told that being married at age fourteen to a stranger, becoming the figurehead of a country full of starving, angry citizens, and being subjected to constant rumors, slander, and intrigue is stressful? I, for one, did not need any dragonfly metaphors to figure that out.
Davis’ commentary on gender and psychology is particularly heavy handed. Antoinette’s mother is always off ruling the country, “a giantess in chamois riding breeches and high-topped boots, closeted in her room with the Lord High Chamberlain and a mountain of paper.” She didn’t take care of Antoinette when she was sick, or help her with her needlework. Antoinette had a hard childhood! Davis does not comment on the striking contrast between Marie-Theresa’s power, independence, and authority and Antoinette’s frivolousness and irresponsibility. This may be because, like the author of the book I read in childhood, Davis is overly concerned with diminishing the negative image of Antoinette.
While it is both historically and psychologically correct to reject the outright demonization of Antoinette—of course she was a real person with human motivations and weaknesses, and she was put in a near-impossible situation—Davis overstates her case, and completely avoids addressing Antoinette’s very real character flaws. Some of her most flagrantly irresponsible actions—particularly her financial follies—are flitted over so quickly that they could escape notice if they weren’t such recognizable stories. For example, Davis mentions Antoinette’s little farm, on which she would play at being a milkmaid. The intersection between Antoinette’s need for escape from her position and the political ramifications of her behavior is fascinating, and Davis ought to have handled the scene in a more subtle and complex way. However, she oversimplifies both politics and human vulnerability so much that all the reader sees is sad, lonely Antoinette, raised in a loveless household, never asking to be queen, only looking for love, happily milking her cows while the vicious, hungry people work themselves into frenzies of hatred for her.
Davis interrupts Antoinette’s narration with brief play-like scenes between other characters—other nobles who acknowledge their impending doom or connive against Antoinette, and average citizens who talk about her in the context of their economic difficulties and hunger. These playlets are the most surreal parts of the book. The characters speak with a ritualistic artificiality; at one point a mob that has just killed a baker chants, “Round the earth oven, restore, restore.” Apparently, Davis is trying to express the depersonalizing nature of a degeneration into mob violence. However, the juxtaposition of Antoinette’s voice with these scenes produces a disruptive, awkward feeling; Davis makes her points about historical motion too obviously.
One of Davis’ subtler and more successful devices is her use of architecture. Versailles is a universe in itself, designed to both glorify and isolate its inhabitants. Ironically, the palace made it easier to escape politics and reality than to master them, and Davis does a good job of expressing the psychological effect of Versailles on Antoinette and her husband. In Davis’ view, the King and Queen simply didn’t understand what was happening in France. It was impossible for them to imagine the circumstances in which the average person existed, circumstances Davis illustrates with scenes in a poor family’s kitchen and in a baker’s house. As we see these people discussing royalty while living in squalor and hunger, it is easy to understand their inability to comprehend the reality of Versailles. The architectural distance between rich and poor mirrors the imaginative distance between them; the collapse of this distance eventually leads, ironically, to the intimacy between the imprisoned Antoinette and her jailers and fellow prisoners. In the squalid and claustrophobic confines of the jail, she and the other prisoners achieve a kind of physical intimacy. They watch her relieve herself, and see the menstrual blood dripping down her thighs. As Queen, Antoinette’s body belonged to the people metaphorically; she gave birth before a crowd, and when she had sex there were watchers lurking behind thin curtains. Her sex life was fair game for the speculations of an entire country. Nonetheless, she was as incomprehensible and alien to the poor as they were to her. Her reduction to a sad, sick woman in the minds and eyes of the mob that wants to destroy her body for its symbolic significance is fascinating, and Davis expresses this effectively.
The novel improves towards the end, as Antoinette lives out her final days. But the story of Marie Antoinette is so compelling, so tragic and complex, that it could sustain a reader’s interest in any form—hence my youthful obsession with the whitewashed 50s biography. Davis’ unsubtle references to clocks ticking, and her questioning “And if I had it to do over? Would I choose to live my life differently? What a question!” only distract us from the feeling of doomed momentum inherent to Antoinette’s story; as in the bowdlerized biography, Davis’ excessive concern with portraying Antoinette positively eliminates some of the most interestingly ambiguous facets of her story. Davis achieves some very poetic moments, but ultimately fails to do justice to the tale she has to tell.