Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund
Harper Perennial, 1st printing, 2007
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: 7 May 1770, and on a small island in the middle of the Rhine, the Archduchess Maria Antonia became Marie Antoinette, Dauphine de France. Abundance follows Marie Antoinette from that tiny island to Versailles, recording her inner dialog as she adapts to the customs of her new country, doing her best to convince the French that Austria has sent them an “angel.” She struggles for the approbation of the King and his court, and that of the Dauphin, and that of the people. After seven long years of balls, gowns, gambling, and diamonds, Marie Antoinette and Louis finally consummate their marriage and begin a family. However, the fiscal collapse of the state, predicted at the start of the century, is nearly complete by the time Louis and Marie assume the throne, and it is they who shall reap the whirlwind.
Marie Antoinette was one of the three beheaded queens with whom I have been fascinated since childhood, the others being Anne Boleyn and Mary, Queen of Scots. One of my favorite memories from childhood involves an impromptu history lesson from my tutu. Spending weekends with her always meant that she would fall asleep early while I read or puttered around her china cabinet. One night, upon waking about two o’clock, she got up and we baked a chocolate cake as she told me about the French Queen who’d said “Let them eat cake!” Of course, that old chestnut has been disproven, but it remains a popular cultural perception of both Marie Antoinette and the Ancien Régime. My interest in Marie Antoinette waned somewhat as I grew older, perhaps because for all her spectacular setting and pathos, she just was not especially interesting. And though based on Antonia Fraser’s biography, Abundance reveals nothing to change that opinion; while sweet and well-meaning, Marie isn’t intellectually stimulating in the least, and is almost devoid of humor, unlike the charming, vivacious butterfly described in so many other works. Marie herself is drawn more to the dashing Little Po (the Duchesse de Polignac) than to the pallidly sweet Princesse de Lamballe, and readers will find themselves wishing for a similarly exciting character to which to turn.
The story is told via Marie Antoinette’s interior monologue, and her perceptions of events; actual letters between Marie Antoinette and her mother and brother are also effectively used for verisimilitude. Use of the first person and sometimes over-pretty prose makes the novel bear a startling resemblance to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (also inspired by Fraser’s work): a frothy, delightful to look at confection with little substance, a Hall of Mirrors reflecting only one inhabitant. Unlike the film, however, Naslund follows the Queen all the way to her end, to her credit, for in adversity Marie remains true to herself as she is demonized and her family torn apart.
Her story unfolds in five parts, like a classical tragedy, but Naslund never manages to convince that Marie Antoinette is a tragic figure. Pathetic, certainly, but the sheltered, naïve, spoiled, and above all self-absorbed creature that Naslund depicts cannot carry a tragedy. As a girl and young woman in the early parts, it works, for what teenager isn’t painfully self-absorbed and naïve? The Royal Family are animals on display at Versailles, and every move she makes is watched and criticized by seemingly everyone in France. As Marie Antoinette labors at making the Dauphin love her, she arouses sympathy, and when she is enchanted by the luxury of her world and simultaneously repulsed by its lack of privacy, so are readers. The interminable middle section is bloated and dull, however; I put the book down for a few days and had to force myself to pick it up again (I read Brief Gaudy Hour instead.). While Marie experiments with hair and costume changes, and decorates and redecorates, gambles and gambols at Versailles and in Paris, the novel drags, weighed down by the tediousness of her narcissism. Naslund tries to humanize her further by illustrating Marie’s fervent desire for motherhood, but the effort feels shallow and abortive. Surrounded only by equally self-absorbed and oblivious figures, Marie has little impetus for change. Pretty as her world is, it is also battened about with cotton-wool, allowing its inhabitants to ignore the rumblings as France crumbles about their heads.
Speaking of heads, the final hundred or so pages finds the pace finally picking up as the monarchy muddles along to its sad and bloody conclusion. Once under siege, Marie gains some strength of character, but it is too little, too late. The brevity of the final sections comes as a bit of a shock after the interminable early chapters, but it perfectly represents Marie’s insularity, as she is far more concerned with her children and small details of everyday life than with a tribunal. “Perhaps captive animals do not see beyond the grilles of their menageries,” Marie muses, a fitting statement for the French aristocracy at the time, loathe to give up their gilded privileges to the very end. Though it doesn’t condemn, Abundance captures the selfishness, venality, self-absorption, and narrowness of perspective endemic at the highest levels in pre-Revolution France, and depicts Marie as a queen who would probably have been far happier as a bourgeois wife and mother. At the end, Marie emerges as a victim of circumstance who always meant well; as she mounted the guillotine and accidentally trod upon the executioner’s foot, her last words were, “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.” An epitaph for an entire career.
Only recommended for avid Marie Antoinette buffs; anyone else will suffer. If it were 200 pages shorter, and less excessively wordy, it might have been more compelling.
Cover: A woman, an elaborate fan, rococo colors, a gilded copper title box. Prettyish, but uninteresting.
Monsieur le Dauphin will arrive home from the hunt too late to dine with me, but I take my supper with my aunts, and they pet and pamper me as though I were their puppy. The have so many lovely puppies to play with–spaniels and pugs, white ones with tan spots, a tan one with white spots, one shaggy little gray thing with his fur parted down the middle of his back. I throw them balls and make them yap and lure them to dance on their hind legs and give a prize of candy to the one who dances longest. He spits it out on the carpet, but it is all very nice.
10 June – 21 June