Saturday, April 26, 2008

Aristocracy Lives!

REVIEW--of the book Marie Therese, Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel.
$39.99, Bloomsbury, 418 pages.

THIS biography of Marie Antoinette's daughter, which is getting a big push by publisher Bloomsbury (they even sent me a copy), has more to say about American aristocratic attitudes today than about what really happened in the late 18th century.

As history the book is ridiculous. As biography it's soap opera. It appeal is to the imaginations of the privileged upper caste of our own civilization.
Nagel's mistake is to rely heavily for sources on discredited memoirs from the day, which are compilations of gossip, urban legends, and hysteria; what David Andress in The Terror calls "--the many rumors and plot-fantasies of the era."

Renowned historian Alfred Cobban, in dismissing such historical sources (in Aspects of the French Revolution), said that the compilers of memoirs of figures like Baron deBesenval and Joseph Weber "often were not those whose names appeared on the title page." The intent of the ghost authors was to provide "picturesque material": collections of "scandalous anecdotes" often disavowed by the presumed authors' families.

To Susan Nagel this is no matter, probably because her goal likewise is to present picturesque material to satisfy her weepy readers, who want not truth, not history, but bad melodrama full of good guys and bad guys. Melodrama, moreover, where the downtrodden have become evil and the despotic royals virtuously pure.

For example: historian Cobban called Madame Campan's memoirs "unreliable." Melodramatist Nagel fills no less than 24 pages of her book with anecdotes from this unreliable source.

The most ridiculous part of Marie Therese is its use of footnotes. Nagel would've been better off not using any. Instead she averages three footnotes per entire chapter-- for a work whose every page bursts with assertions and anecdotes.

Nagel flatly states on pages 146-147 that mementos of the late Queen were found under Robespierre's mattress after his death. Wow! Quite a story. Where's the source? Or, on page 69, the evil Duke of Orleans had "secretly amassed an immense hoard of grain with the intent of causing a shortage--"! Another dramatic revelation, shocking in import. Again, where's the footnote; the source?

The items which should be footnoted, aren't. We have hosts of tabloid rumors buttressed by a flimsy intellectual veneer.
"--highly detailed, exhaustively researched--"
-Booklist, Starred Review.
In her text, Nagel mentions Sydney Carton and the Scarlet Pimpernel. I suspect those are her true sources.Her book is not without its attractions. Many of the early chapters, such as "Two Orphans," are compelling. (Blurb: "King Wenclas calls Marie Therese 'compelling.'")

The novel-- excuse me, "biography"-- reminds me of the movie version of "Gone With the Wind," in that the first half is hyper-dramatic with a strong heroine beset on all sides. In the second half the heroine, Marie Therese, lives among the aftermath of a changed world, involved with suitors, marriage, family scandals and social involvements. After the tremendous activity of the French Revolution, during which the young Marie Therese lived at the very center, it all becomes anti-climactic.

But what drama there is while it lasts! Escapes, dungeons, attempted rescues, mad crowds, beheadings-- here indeed is the stuff for a great novel, which sadly only Charles Dickens among literary masters was ambitious enough to attempt.

Nagel does her best, painting in garish colors, usually with too-heavy a brush. Often we're faced with the comical, as when in Bordeaux, brave Duchess d'Angouleme (Marie Therese) tries to halt Napoleon's return from Elba. (Page 265.)
Nagel makes not the slightest attempt at balance or objectivity, which is a refreshing change from standard liberal phoniness. Here we see what the publishing industry today truly thinks and feels. (In this endeavor Nagel is backed by Tina Brown, ex New Yorker and Vanity Fair Editor; author of The Diana Chronicles.)

There's a blatant worship of wealth, privilege, titles, and possessions. One of Nagel's scarce footnotes is for a list of the trousseau Marie Therese left behind when fleeing into exile: a 220-word catalogue of clothing which the book's fans will find gush-worthy.

One gets the impression that aristocracy past and present is about the superficial: clothes, manners, robes, and poses, exemplified by the piled-on language of "Your Highness" in every phrase, the elaborate curtseying and bowing, the kissing of hands, which when it suddenly ceases comes to the nobility as a shock.

Nagel's bias is shown by her chapter headings: "Child of France"; "Once Upon a Time"; "Storm Clouds over the Palace"; "The End of the Fairy Tale"; "Two Orphans"; "Every Inch a Princess"; and so on. If this is history, it's an antiquated kind of history; a 418-page press release which could've been issued by Louis XVI himself! Susan Nagel is blindly transfixed. The trappings of power-- "His Most Christian Majesty, dressed in the Order of the Holy Ghost ablaze with diamonds"-- to a product of a society which through magazines like Vanity Fair itself worships such trappings, such extreme wealth, obsessively, have hypnotized our chronicler. All she can do, ultimately, is gush, as in her acknowledgement to "the help and encouragement of His Serene Highness, Prince Charles-Henri de Lobkowicz." Can we surmise that our historian, Ms. Nagel, has been allowed into too many Insider parties?
Long before King Louis XVI and his family were prisoners in a dungeon, they were prisoners of the isolation of their mindset. Historian William Doyle concluded in Origins of the French Revolution that there were many opportunities for the King to halt the revolution, through concessions or force, as he retained immense power. He lacked the imagination to use it.

Nagel is focused on the personal, on family. This matches the King's focus. Happenings occur; the anger of mobs; the currents of change. To the King and Nagel trapped within Versailles it's all very confusing.

Unstated: the man was supreme ruler! Yet he knows nothing about the country he rules, and doesn't want to know. As revolution breaks and cascades over Versailles, the King has willfully escaped from reality, spending long hours hunting! The state is bankrupt, the people starving, and the man in charge does nothing. Like Montezuma, he remains trapped by his own inertia. He makes no real effort even to save his crown, out of "love for his people." He's not a ruler at all, but a prop, as if Versailles were a great glittering movie set.

Nagel buys the myth of the King as helpless victim-- and so absolves him of responsibility even for his own actions. There's a disconnect not just in the mind of the King, and his wife and daughter, but more unforgiveably, in the mind of the biographer, Susan Nagel. War and counter-revolution begin quickly; attempts to rollback the popular changes; the onset of civil war. The King sits innocently in his palace.

Marie Antoinette of course maneuvered to rescue the old regime. She encouraged foreign invasion, and bribed politicians. Yet for Nagel, these actions should have no consequences. The consequences in fact surprise her. She has so swallowed Marie Antoinette's mentality whole-- like a giant dildo-- she can only ask, with her characters, Why has this occurred?

On the one hand the people love the Bourbons and the "Children of France," right to the bitter end; the last ignominious flight. On the other hand the angry mobs indicate that they really don't like the Bourbons at all. This contradiction is never resolved. Or, it's resolved through cardboard bad guys like the Duke of Orleans.

The royal family clings to their birthright of innocent virtue. Nagel's book, if nothing else, is a great depiction of the stupidity of the privileged, then and now. There is no nation, no history, no economy, no government, no sweep of social forces. For Nagel as for the family there is their own pristine good surrounded by a faceless mob, or an evil cousin.
Marie Therese, Child of Terror may find a large audience around the country among suburbanites with failed mortgages, who-- along with the myth of endless affluence-- bought their own opulent palaces and are now on the verge of being kicked out.

The perpetrators of the book, however, represent a miniscule sliver of this nation residing on an east coast island; many of them transplanted royalist Brits like Vicky Ward and Tina Brown. Miniscule they are in numbers but great in media power.

Nagel's book to its rich fans expresses an unspoken fear about their own time; a fear which comes with improportionate wealth. Their own land-- this land-- increasingly to them is an unknown place of "oddly dressed, ill-spoken, belligerent" mobs.

As with Nagel's book, with the royal family everything is manner; gesture. Pose. And so Marie Therese consists in actuality of little more than a series of poses. Marie Therese, formed by her sheltered upbringing and the real trauma of revolution, afterward was a stage actress, performing her role in an empty and broken opera house, addressing herself to "The People of France!" who'd stopped listening to her and her kind in 1789. Her life, without the adoration of the gloss Nagel imbues it with, was a pathetic psychosis, a clinging to a long-vanished past. For the remains of the Bourbons the forty-some years after revolution were an attempt to recapture the halycon days of Versailles. They never could, but at least learned to keep their bags packed for the constant flights into exile from the people they loved. The famous statement about them, that "they forgot nothing and learned nothing," was incorrect. They learned how to escape!

Nagel's book tries to resurrect the Bourbons' tarnished gloss. There is at least one person in the shabby and dusty old theater as Marie Therese postures and proclaims from the stage: Susan Nagel. Marie does a final pirouette. Nagel furiously applauds.