The final volume of Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy (Becoming Marie Antoinette, 2011, etc.) grimly details the queen’s sad and, to contemporary eyes, terribly unjust end.
As a rabble invades the Palace of Versailles, Louis XVI still believes that his people wish him no harm. But his wife, Marie Antoinette, is more realistic: After years of being defamed by the French, ever since she was brought from Austria to marry Louis, she knows that the revolutionary mob’s threats to have her head are no mere rhetoric. From the sacking of Versailles to the royals’ removal to the Tuileries “for their own protection,” the dismantling of the French monarchy is minutely dissected. Unfortunately, the depiction of outcomes we already know can be less than dramatic if suspense and conflict cannot somehow be generated, and here, they are not. The royal family’s ill-fated escape attempt, engineered by Antoinette’s paramour Axel von Fersen, is vividly reconstructed, as is every permutation of the revolutionary process as various political factions dispute whether or not the royals should remain in place as constitutional rulers, be banished, or, finally, be tried and executed. Time and again, Antoinette pins her hopes on Axel and on some of the secret loyalists among her guards and jailers, but these hopes are repeatedly dashed as the Parisians prove that their barbaric rampaging trumps the machinations of even the canniest demagogue or courtier. It is excruciating to read about the humiliations Antoinette is forced to endure: the massacre of her faithful retainers, the execution of Louis, and separation from her daughter and her son, the dauphin, who, beaten and starved, is “reeducated” to vilify her. It is almost with relief that readers witness Antoinette’s own eventual march to the scaffold. Perhaps the tedium of this novel is partially due to the characterization of the queen herself. Despite all the indignities she suffers, she is never allowed to entertain or voice thoughts that are less than saintly and forgiving.
An admirable if stiff portrait of a noble heart.