Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
by Sena Jeter Naslund
A review by Ron Charles
We'll start with dessert: Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." Historians suggest several competing sources for that damning line, but everyone agrees that she wasn't it. As rumors about the young queen go, though, that's hardly the worst. When she came to France from Austria in 1770 at age 14, already married in absentia to the Dauphin, the populace loved her and the streets were strewn with flowers. But within a few years, radical pamphlets in Paris were portraying her in acts of reckless extravagance and outrageous debauchery. By the end, republicans even accused her of conducting a ménage à trois with her son. Amid the fiery chaos of the French Revolution, the veracity of these scurrilous claims made no difference. On Oct. 16, 1793, she was beheaded, using Dr. Guillotin's "humane" new contraption.
For novelist Sena Jeter Naslund, the doomed French queen must have looked irrésistible. Naslund broke on to the bestseller list in 1999 with Ahab's Wife, a spectacular novel spun from a single reference in Moby-Dick. Marie Antoinette would seem to offer Naslund the same rich material for historical reenactment and feminist revision, but it turns out there's a limit to how much you can defend a sweet, spoiled, sheltered woman -- even an exquisitely dressed one. Naslund adds to this difficulty by using Marie to narrate this very long novel in the first person -- a choice that leaves us trapped, literally and figuratively, in the Hall of Mirrors.
That's not to imply that there aren't pleasures to be found in Abundance. Au contraire: They're abundant. Naslund commands historical details to portray the world's most extravagant palace in all its dazzling splendor and inane ceremony. Her study of contemporary memoirs and letters allows her to speak in a voice that conveys the queen's delicacy and earnestness as she strives to be the embodiment of peace between Austria and France. "Fate, as well as my mother," Marie says correctly, "has dealt me a card of Importance."
The opening chapters of the novel describe her extraordinary preparations for the passage from her homeland to France, a transition designed to strip her of anything Austrian and reclothe her in a new identity. In Naslund's richly eroticized retelling, Marie is completely naked at the moment of transfer. And from her first perfectly calibrated pronouncement, she impresses her new countrymen with her devotion: "Don't speak to me in German," she commands. "From now on I want to hear no other language but French."
Because producing an heir was Marie's raison d'être, Naslund concentrates much of the early section of the novel on the queen's dutiful efforts to love (and arouse) the impotent Dauphin. It's an irresistibly intimate and bizarre story. Their wedding night is attended by dozens of servants and ministers, including an archbishop. (I'm not even Catholic, but I think having an archbishop along for the honeymoon would be a mood-killer.) Shy, awkward and phlegmatic, the poor Dauphin also suffers from a "too-tight foreskin" that keeps him from consummating their marriage for years, a political crisis discussed in humiliating detail all over Europe. Given that royal case of performance anxiety, it's a miracle anything ever happens, but seven years after their wedding night, Marie finally gives birth before hundreds of spectators.
Too soon, though, the middle section of the novel grows flaccid, largely because it accurately reflects the narrator's ritualized and isolated life. As France's economic and political condition decays, Marie strolls through her vast gardens accompanied by servants and royal residents of Versailles. She unveils towering hair styles. She sits in her salon and makes a friend who likes kittens. She flirts -- alas, chastely -- with her husband's brothers and a dashing soldier from Sweden. She nurses resentments against a few foes, notably a crafty cardinal and the late king's mistress. But these potentially exciting villains never develop any substance in the novel, which remains focused on Marie's determination to do and say the right thing at all times. "I was never the most talented, the brightest, or the most beautiful of my mother's daughters," she tells us with deadening sincerity, "but I have tried to be good and to do my Christian duty." That's a marvelous quality in a young lady; not so much in a narrator. Naslund recreates Marie so sympathetically that we can't help aching for the queen -- except when we want to slap her.
To be sure, there are intimations of trouble throughout France; after visiting from Austria, her brother writes, "I tremble not only for your happiness, but for your safety. I have seen enough in this country to know that the finances and welfare of the state are in a desperate condition." But immediately after reading his dire letter, Marie tells us, "Sometimes the water in the bath is of such a compatible temperature that it is bliss to submerge my body in the fragrant liquid." Calgon, take me away!
The most telling episodes show Marie slipping innocently into extravagant habits amid an atmosphere of intoxicating praise and ease. While her husband helps finance the American Revolution (which Marie notes might not be the wisest thing for a king to encourage), she grows obsessed with gambling and redecorating -- anything to experience the sensation of risk and change. She buys a 5-year-old boy from a cottage in the woods but quickly loses interest in him. She prevails upon the king to construct an entire faux village for her to play in as an homage to France's peasants, many of whom are starving. Asked to economize, she cuts 173 positions from her household staff -- and you know how difficult that can be.
But despite these spikes of dramatic irony, Naslund remains the queen's most adoring attendant, an attitude that makes her too patient with Marie's narcissism and may also explain the novel's long-windedness. A stray reference to that old rascal Voltaire reminded me just what wit I was missing outside the perfumed air of Marie's boudoir.
In the last 150 pages, the gears of the plot finally catch, and the horrible fate awaiting the royal family rushes at them, but the narrative remains cramped in Marie's narrow perspective. We hear of the king's trial only indirectly. Even her own trial, which could have been such a dramatic episode in the novel, passes in just a few paragraphs -- far less than we've heard about her hair, her garden, the beautiful smile of a friend. "Perhaps," Marie tells us toward the end, "captive animals do not see beyond the grilles of their menageries." Abundance is a moving testament to that limited vision but also a frustrating reenactment of the self-absorption that killed the queen.
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