Madame Royale is the second in Elena Maria Vidal's series of novels on the French Royal Family in the period surrounding the Revolution. The endorsement and praise for the book on the back of the current edition's cover - and its Amazon page - was written by yours truly and I was so honoured to be asked by Miss Vidal, whose excellent blog was one of the reasons why I felt inspired to start my own.
Having written the endorsement of Madame Royale, it's fair to say that I'm something of a fan! But, I have not yet had the opportunity to write a full review for the book having already written one of its prequel - Trianon, back in July. My thanks to Elena Maria for very kindly sending me a copy of the book and for even more generously asking for my opinions for its back cover and for a review. It's very flattering and I hope I have written a review that is both fair and worthy of the novel.
"Thérèse’s mind wandered from the doings of the British parliament. It seemed to her that from around the time of her marriage ten years earlier she fell prey to distractions whenever she attempted to read, or pray, or in any other way apply her mind. Not prison or the Terror, not threat of death or even the loss of her entire family had been able to rattle her steel-trap mind. All the sorrows were suddenly catching up with her, like hounds closing in upon their game. After a decade of maintaining a day by day façade of marital contentment, of suppressing her emotions of betrayal and disappointment, of fighting envy of women with children, of trying to build the confidence of a man whose soul was scarred beyond repair, she felt she had lost her former self-possession and was scrambling to cling to every vestige of peace and sanity that remained to her."
- From Madame Royale by Elena Maria Vidal
It is never easy to be the daughter of a famous woman and even less so to be the daughter of a famously glamorous woman. It is rare indeed for history to produce a woman like Elizabeth I, who managed to outstrip the fame and appeal of her iconic and doomed mother. More often than not, the daughters of famous women are pale and pallid shadows in the luminescent glow of their mother’s reputational star. Who, for instance, can tell us very much about the daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth Woodville? Or, rather, who can get excited about them? And if they are not quietly drowning in the tide of their mothers’ memories, such daughters are often sadly consumed by bitterness at being unable to emulate their fame. In the last century, the vituperative respective memoirs of Christina Crawford and B.D. Hyman are perhaps the most memorable examples of this less-than-commendable familial trait.
It was therefore one of the many tragedies of the life of Princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France that she was the only surviving daughter of Marie-Antoinette. Marie-Thérèse would certainly not have considered being her mother’s daughter a tragedy, but as Marie-Antoinette’s chic ghost permanently haunted her daughter’s less-than-chic present it compelled people to draw unfavourable comparisons between the two women. Marie-Antoinette had been attractive, elegant, vivacious, outgoing and possessed of a proverbially famous charm; her eldest child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, had none of these qualities. Instead, Marie-Thérèse’s looks rapidly deteriorated as she reached adulthood, she was disinterested in fashion, socially awkward, often rude when in company, painfully shy and utterly devoid of charisma. The only thing she had inherited from her mother was a genuine interest in the well-being of the poor and a love of young children. From both of her parents, she also acquired an almost other-worldly level of courage and dignity under pressure. And it these qualities, coupled with her strong Roman Catholic faith, which Elena Maria Vidal chooses to highlight in her fantastic (and now re-issued in paperback) novel Madame Royale, a sequel to Trianon, which was based on the final years of her parents’ marriage.
Like many of the Parisians of the 1810s and 1820s, modern novelists are often disappointed when confronted by the figure of the adult Marie-Thérèse. When she finally returned to her homeland, upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, the Parisians wanted Marie-Thérèse to be what one would have expected in the daughter of Marie-Antoinette. Having written Marie-Thérèse as a major character in All Those Who Suffered, the first ever full length play I wrote back when I was seventeen, I share (or rather, shared) their frustrations. As far as many of the French were concerned, the princess who was coming back to them was going to be the veritable reincarnation of the young Austrian archduchess who had so dazzlingly mounted the throne alongside her husband in the halcyon days of 1774. Coupled with the fact that this princess had just spent nearly two decades in an exile littered with flight, intrigue and genteel poverty, the good people of Paris seemed to be under the general impression that they were about to greet a woman who was a cross between a young Marie-Antoinette and an Antigone.
They were not.
Instead, the princess who rode through the streets of Paris during the early days of the Restoration was taciturn, frigid and more masculine than feminine in her appearance. That this was the daughter of the legendarily charming and seductively tragic Marie-Antoinette could have been almost laughable, had it not been for the fact that the Parisians failed to find anything amusing in Marie-Thérèse’s physical appearance or social manners. Most modern novelists, playwrights and film-makers have followed suit in being truly disappointed by the spectacle presented by Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte’s adult life and so Madame Royale is one of the very few – indeed, at the moment, the only – novel dealing with her under-studied story.
By the time the novel properly begins, the surviving members of the French Royal Family are living in exile in England. Their daily routine is the same day-in, day-out, and Miss Vidal captures perfectly the stultifying routine of the embittered Court-in-exile. Marie-Thérèse’s eldest uncle, formerly the Comte de Provence, has taken the regnal name of Louis XVIII, now that his elder brother and young nephew (Marie-Thérèse’s father and brother respectively) have lost their lives in the Revolution. Obese but clever, the exiled king uses his flawless manners to mask his Machiavellian and intrinsically selfish personality. Another of Marie-Thérèse’s uncles, the handsome and reactionary Comte d’Artois, is living in London, only occasionally visiting the rest of the Royal Family at the tiny English country house they have been given as their residence in exile. It is there that Marie-Thérèse currently lives, having married her first cousin, the truculent and unappealing Duc d’Angoulême. How precisely the most famous princess in Europe reached this point and her determination to make her marriage work is slowly unfolded across the course of the novel. Even if you don’t agree with Marie-Thérèse’s strict personal morality, her devotion to her own principles is nothing short of inspiring.
Yet, in Madame Royale Marie-Thérèse emerges not just as an admirable character, but crucially as a sympathetic one as well. I’m not ashamed to say that, in terms of nuances, Miss Vidal outstrips my characterisation of her in All Those Who Suffered, hands-down. It is a testament to her skills as an historical novelist and her passion for her characters that she has been able to take such a potentially difficult character as Marie-Thérèse and turn her into a figure worthy of being the eponymous heroine of a novel. Thankfully, she does not do this by excising the less attractive sides of the princess’s personality – that would be the easy way out. Rather, she accentuates the faults in the hope that we might come to better understand the princess’s struggles. Marie-Thérèse’s virtues are self-evident within the novel’s opening two chapters – she is courageous, principled, devout, loyal, kind and dutiful. Her faults, however, are slowly revealed over the course of the story. At times, when Marie-Thérèse launches into one of her more didactic and heavy-handed monologues on the virtues of State Catholicism, it’s difficult not to associate it with the mind-numbing exhortations of modern-day evangelicals in their born-again fervour. Miss Vidal also shows us the occasional paranoiac conspiracy theory swirling around in the princess’s deluded and damaged brain, in which she blames the entire French Revolution on freemasonry. She genuinely believes that the entire thing was the result of a long-term atheistic conspiracy, rather than what it really was – the more terrifying reality of mob violence run amok and then codified into legalised hysterical idealism. The author then describes moments of Marie-Thérèse being supremely lacking in charity – her ‘cold fury’ when she hears that the pious Duchesse d’Orléans has been left unmolested by the Revolution, simply because her husband was both a freemason and a republican, when other equally religious aristocratic ladies have been slaughtered on the steps of the guillotine. There are also dozens of moments in which Marie-Thérèse is cold, rude or awkward to those around her. And what makes this all so brilliant within the context of the novel is that it actually makes us like Marie-Thérèse even more than we might have if she had been perfect. Miss Vidal shows us that Madame Royale is more than aware that she’s being rude or taciturn; she can feel her manner alienating people and she tries desperately to inject herself with some of her mother’s fabled charm. All to no avail. And it’s this struggle – not just to be right and to do the right thing, but to be charming and to do the gracious thing – which makes your heart ache a little for Miss Vidal’s heroine. It’s the ongoing daily struggles of her life – so far removed from the “happily ever after” we might have expected – which makes Marie-Thérèse a very unusual and profoundly moving sort of heroine. As characterisations go, it’s a fine example of the craft of the historical novelist.
As I have said, the lead character in Madame Royale is expertly drawn. However, this is also a novel populated by a whole range of other minor characters from the period – the future King George IV of Britain, Marie-Antoinette’s former admirer Count von Fersen, the enigmatic Knights of The Faith, the feisty Duchesse de Berry and the handsome, ambitious Archduke Karl von Hapsburg. Three of the subsidiary characterisations in this novel deserve a special mention, however, and in all three cases, they are interestingly enough characters of whom we are not really supposed to approve – personally, politically or both. The first is the exiled de jure Queen of France, Marie-Joséphine of Savoy, by now sunk into a middle-aged melancholia. Historically speaking, the real Marie-Joséphine was quite possibly a repressed lesbian; she was certainly an un-repressed alcoholic. Whatever the truth, being married to a man such as Louis XVIII was bound to have made her life miserable anyway. Eaten away by the charade of her married life, consumed by guilt for her jealousy of the now-dead Marie-Antoinette, robbed of her former lavish lifestyle by the Revolution and sinking further and further into an abyss of alcoholism and depression, Marie-Joséphine is the novel's most pathetic character and the scene in which she dies, begging Marie-Thérèse to forgive her for her jealous spite of her mother, finally made me feel sympathy for an historical character whom I had always previously dismissed as a gaudy, irritating irrelevance. It was actually the scene in the novel I found the saddest and the one in which Marie-Thérèse’s full commitment to Christian teachings on forgiveness really shone through. Marie-Thérèse’s estranged cousin, Louis-Philippe, is another fascinating character. Handsome, sexually appealing and flawlessly polite, the fact that he is a prince with a strong and genuine commitment to left-wing ideology is a paradox which serves only to make him yet more attractive and more enigmatic. His idealism is so clueless that, like Marie-Thérèse, we struggled to condemn him entirely. It is also something of a relief to see a left-wing character presented in a pro-royalist novel as something other than a drooling sociopath. Finally, a word on my favourite characterisation in the entire novel - that rendered of the consummate political survivor, Talleyrand. Given that the novel itself is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I think it’s fair to say that it’s supremely unlikely that Miss Vidal personally approves of the man who began his career as a bishop in the pre-Revolutionary Catholic Church, before ditching it entirely and somehow managing to survive the Revolution, the Directory, the Bonaparte Empire and the restoration of the Monarchy with his fortune and political credit more or less completely intact. A compulsive womaniser, even in his days as a bishop, Talleyrand was devoted to his own personal fortune, social-climbing and a life of luxury and privilege. He was, moreover, a mass of contradictions – despite his apparent left-wing credentials, his closest friend was the King’s younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, one of the leaders of the French ultra-Right (the moment where Talleyrand announces how much he loves the prince is one of the novel’s most moving and surprising turns), despite making his peace with the republic, he lamented the ‘sweetness and grace’ of aristocratic life in the days before the Revolution and despite having abandoned his earlier oaths of loyalty to both throne and altar, Talleyrand has a strong obsession with beauty, charm and grace. Madame Royale captures all of this perfectly. It neither condemns nor praises Talleyrand. It is for the reader to draw their own conclusions about his paradoxically appealing and repugnant character and career. And, as far as I’m concerned, I would say that Madame Royale’s depiction of Talleyrand is one of the finest examples of historical characterisation currently in print. It’s a triumph. I never expected to feel anything but contempt for the former bishop, but, as with Marie-Joséphine, I found myself unexpectedly moved. And hats off to Miss Vidal for making that possible!
One thing I enjoyed very much in Trianon was Miss Vidal’s style of writing and I’m happy to say it returned again in Madame Royale. Whether it was intentional or not, I don’t know, but her approach of writing in a style very reminiscent of the memoirs of the actual period seemed to me to the perfect way of drawing you into the early 19th-century’s psychology, modes of expression and values. I've always loved that era's style of literary delivery and so Madame Royale was a treat to read, even from a stylistic point-of-view.
It is this style which allows the novel to tease out the full potential of one of its central storylines – the case of what really happened to Marie-Thérèse’s younger brother during the Revolution. Nowadays, of course, science has established beyond reasonable doubt that the boy died at the age of ten in a filthy republican jail, but in the early 1800s, there were no such certainties. The boy who should be king had simply vanished at the height of the Terror and no-one knew where he – or his body – was. In the years to come, the true fate of the “Lost Dauphin” (although by then he was technically Louis XVII) became one of the great obsessions in western European culture. It was very much the Grand Duchess Anastasia case of its day. I myself was so enraptured by it as a teenager that I wrote my aforementioned first play on the subject, although, in that production, I chose to have Louis-Charles live and one day return to Paris. It was only when I grew older that I suddenly realised that my portrait of the missing prince might have been a tad too idealistic. Having read anew the book I had been inspired to write All Those Who Suffered by, it occurred to me that given the horrific child abuse the young child had suffered, that (had he survived) it was highly unlikely that he would have been the confident, moral and determined young man I characterised him as in All Those Who Suffered. What Madame Royale does is grapple with the question I had missed during the writing of that play – it not only explores the full ramifications of the scandal of the missing boy-king from the point-of-view of his only surviving sister, but she also has Marie-Thérèse confront the upsetting idea that, even if her beloved brother is alive, he might be so damaged by what the revolutionaries did to him that he would have to be hidden away from public gaze forever, anyway. If I were ever to return to All Those Who Suffered, I would certainly bear these things in mind. By exploring the fascinating case of the missing prince from Marie-Thérèse’s agonised perspective, Elena Maria manages to make us think once again about what it was like to live at the centre of an affair which everybody else simply found to be an entertaining conspiracy theory.
There are moments in Madame Royale which work better than others. Its weakest section by far is its prologue, set on the eve of the Revolution. It has a chilling conclusion, told through the eyes of a courtesan, but its opening seems slightly too obvious and the representation of the dissolute left-wing prince, Philippe Égalité, lacks the subtlety and nuances of some of Miss Vidal’s other characters. The novel's strongest sections, I would say, are the death of Queen Marie-Joséphine, the visit to Madame Simon and the terrible moment at a party in Vienna, which I will not spoil for readers.
Finally, a note on one of the major subjects of the book – religion. In a way, I think one can say that Elena Maria Vidal’s first two novels are quintessentially novels of martyrdom. But not in the traditional sense of the word. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the main characters of Trianon, were not put to death because they were Christians; the fact that they were Christians only increased the French Revolution’s ire against them, but any historian worth their salt will tell you that the real reason the King and Queen of France were executed was politics, not piety. It was because they were royals, not Catholics, which spurred the First Republic to drive the doctrine of enforced Equality home with the blade of the guillotine. Their daughter Marie-Thérèse did not even suffer a violent death. Rather, she died peacefully in her bed in a mansion on the outskirts of Vienna in 1851, at the age of seventy-three.
Proclaiming that Trianon is a novel of martyrdom is however much easier than making the same case for Madame Royale. Looking at the final years of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s lives, it’s difficult not to be drawn to the conclusion that, as Miss Vidal’s novel contends, theirs was a kind of martyrdom. Alright, it might not have been as clear-cut as Saint Perpetua being thrown to wild beasts in the ampitheatre or Saint Anastasia’s agonising death in the flames, but their story is not much less tragic, nor any the less cruel. Beginning with the siege of Versailles in the autumn of 1789, when their bodyguard was butchered and their home ransacked, the King and Queen progressed through four purgatorial – and then hellish - years in which they experienced house arrest, physical intimidation, threats of assassination, the enforced exile of the rest of their family, an unrelenting and savage legal assault on their religion, ritual public humiliation, the lynching of the queen’s closest friend, several massacres of their supporters, imprisonment, separation, perjured trials and charges of incest, adultery, treason, espionage, embezzlement, corruption, paedophilia and attempted genocide. The Queen, once left a widow, was also forced to endure separation from her son (who was then, essentially, tortured and brutalised to death) and finally separation from her daughter.
Given the appalling gradient of disaster the French Royal Family suffered, the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that Marie-Thérèse was the member of the clan who got off lightly. After all, she survived and lived into her eighth decade and, despite certain financial worries, she was never genuinely or actually poor. Moreover, given the eternal fascination of her mother’s story, isn’t it always going to be the case that by virtue of comparison Marie-Thérèse’s story simply seems far less interesting? Well, yes. In terms of drama, that’s an undeniably valid conclusion. But if Marie-Antoinette’s is a martyrdom of melodrama, Marie-Thérèse’s is one of the mundane. This is a woman who struggles on a daily basis with issues about her own personal behaviour, familial obligations, duties to one’s country, one’s faith, one’s place in society, an often-frustrating marriage, a lost love, difficult friends, unhappiness, politics, love and money. Where Marie-Antoinette’s struggles were executed in the arena of great drama and earth-shattering events, her daughter’s is carried out in the everyday and it’s that element of her story, I think, which gives Madame Royale its greatest emotional appeal. Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte is not perfect, but she is a great and courageous lady struggling to do what she thinks is right and proper on a daily basis. This policy often brings her personal unhappiness, but also brings her great joy and, at the very last, the ability to stand before God with a clean conscience and say with honesty that she had always tried to do the right thing. She had never been cruel, nor selfish, nor spiteful, nor dishonest. Whatever one might think of the French Restoration and the final years of monarchy in France, whatever one might think of Catholicism and aristocracy, privilege and power, the one salient point Madame Royale is trying to make is that the story of a woman of principle, decency and integrity is one that’s very much worth telling.
When I finished reading Madame Royale, I didn’t quite know what to think or say. The final scene, where the princess’s coffin passes by the ranks of Slovenian peasants gathered to watch her funeral, left me feeling slightly bereft. I also felt strangely angry at history for not having allotted Marie-Thérèse a kinder destiny, but what I couldn’t fault was the devotion to telling that destiny on the part of the author. They say that the greatest story in History is the Truth and in Madame Royale Elena Maria Vidal certainly proves that’s the case. The sights, sounds and smells of 19th-century Europe are all brilliantly captured in this immaculately researched and exquisite novel, which, as I’ve said, recalls the great memoirists of the 1800s. Madame Royale is an unforgettable portrait of a royal life torn between religion, politics, revolution, mystery, heartache and intrigue and I was honoured to be asked to endorse it, thrilled to be asked to review it and moved to be able to read it. I concluded my review of Trianon by saying that I was sure that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette would have been touched by Miss Vidal’s literary portrait of them, I am even more certain that, even if she wouldn’t have been able to express it as fulsomely as her mother, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte would have been flattered and deeply grateful for the portrait rendered of her in the pages of Madame Royale. It is a fantastic tribute to one of Europe’s most tragic but courageous princesses.