Slow-moving account of the life and the mythology surrounding French princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte (1778–1851).
In the book’s early chapters, Nagel (Humanities/Marymount Manhattan Coll.; Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, 2004, etc.) is consumed with detailing the fate of Marie-Thérèse’s mother, Marie Antoinette. These sections are occasionally enlivened by intriguing asides about the young Marie-Thérèse, such as the special sign language she developed to communicate with her parents in prison and the impact on her own development of her mother’s bravery in the face of the French Revolution. The princess doesn’t gain her biographer’s full attention until her escape to Vienna following the end of the Reign of Terror. Despite romantic advances from Austria’s Archduke Karl, she married her first cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême, “because at the bottom of her heart she hoped that the Bourbon monarchy would return to France.” (It did, in 1815, but the Revolution of 1830 ensured that Marie-Thérèse would never be queen.) Nagel speculates on rumors of d’Angoulême’s homosexuality, examines a trip Marie-Thérèse took to her parents’ burial ground on her return to France and discusses a period when the 42-year-old princess mistakenly believed that she was pregnant. Somewhere in the folds of this perfunctory history lies an intriguing question: Was Marie-Thérèse replaced by a doppelgänger on her release from prison in 1795? Nagel comes to grips with this question only in the book’s afterword. There, she examines DNA testing and picks apart the scant details regarding Sophie Botta, the woman many believed was the “real” Marie-Thérèse. The author reprints correspondence written by both women, finding a marked difference in their handwriting. She signs off with the firm assertion that Botta “was not Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, daughter of Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI of France.”
A dry, unexciting account punctuated by all-too-fleeting moments of interest.