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Mon October 23, 2006
Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
Sena Jeter Naslund wrote Four Spirits from memory. Ahab's Wife, however, a novel of New England in the nineteenth century, is deeply researched, and Abundance even more so. She has learned most of what is known about Marie and Louis, and this novel is as accurate as historical fiction is likely to be.
By Don Noble
People think they know a lot about Marie Antoinette, the wife of France's King Louis 16th, the queen who lost her head to the guillotine in the reign of terror. These people are mostly wrong. Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake," for instance. That had, in fact, been said, but by a previous French queen, a hundred years earlier.
Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Empress of Austria, was wed to Louis, who was fifteen, when she was fourteen. It was a political, arranged marriage. They were both still children and had never met, but Marie took the marriage and her responsibilities as queen seriously, including her duty to give birth to an heir. Louis, however, either because he had some kind of physical deformity or was too young and too shy, did not consummate the marriage for seven and a half years. Nevertheless, it was a happy marriage that eventually produced four children.
Sena Jeter Naslund, a native of Birmingham and a graduate of Birmingham Southern College, is also the author of Four Spirits, her novel of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. For that novel Naslund relied mainly on her own memory and especially her memory of her feelings during those disgraceful times. Ahab's Wife, however, a novel of New England in the nineteenth century, is deeply researched, and Abundance even more so. She has learned most of what is known about Marie and Louis, and this novel is as accurate as historical fiction is likely to be.
Naslund does not tell the story from the side, as is done in Johnny Tremain or Ben and Me, but in the first person, having come to a nearly uncanny identification with her subject. Naslund had always felt that Marie was maligned, by history and especially in a biography by Stefan Zweig. Marie was then treated fairly by Antonia Fraser's recent biography, which Naslund makes good use of.
But Abundance is not biography. It is a novel, and Marie's innermost longings, fears, emotions of every kind, from her seemingly endless wait for Louis to get up his courage, to her consummate bravery in facing the guillotine, are all felt and shown.
In writing this kind of novel, the author gives up a great deal. After all, most readers will know how it ends. Naslund has to relinquish simple suspense, but instead chooses dramatic form.
She organizes her novel into five acts, in the Shakespearean way. There is rising action, climax, and denouement. After all, who does not know in advance what will happen to Hamlet in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark? The power is not in the suspense, but in the inevitability, as the wheel of fortune turns. Abundance is a kind of reverse Cinderella story, in which the girl from the palace ends up in a hovel, a dirty prison cell, and then is executed.
Although there are palaces and carriages and banquets, Naslund's novel is not a romance, not a bodice ripper or a speedy page-turner. Much has been said recently about Marie Antoinette's clothing, and Naslund's prose is like that clothing in a way. It is decorated, brocaded, embroidered, fairly formal, and almost always beautiful. Savor it. This is not a Tom Clancy thriller, or Ice Station Zebra, fast and awful.
Readers will learn much they did not know. Marie did not take alcohol and never overate, neither of which was true for Louis. She was not frigid, had many good women friends?especially a female court portrait painter, Elisabeth Vig?e-Lebrun, who may be the subject of Naslund's next novel?but Marie was not a lesbian, although her enemies said so. She was not an Austrian spy, but in fact was more faithful to Louis and France than Louis and France had any right to expect. Marie Antoinette was a serious musician; she could sight read like a professional and was an excellent harpist.
Marie longed for privacy and got none. Trapped in a totally public life?forty people watched her give birth?she yearned for what we might call real life, and got little of it. Her building of the little faux-rustic hamlet behind the palace where she pretended to be a shepherdess or milkmaid was actually a desperate attempt to be a regular person, not a statue or a queen.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.