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Kathryn Davis's Versailles

All of a sudden, I had to read something by Kathryn Davis. Everyone seemed to be saying that she's an interesting writer, with a whiff of the experimental. I don't care for more than a whiff of experiment, at least of the visible, conscious kind, so I played it safe. I got a copy of Versailles. And I read it with surprised pleasure. Surprised by Ms Davis's ability to make Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, interesting and convincing at the same time. It is difficult to imagine Marie-Antoinette taking the trouble to write much of anything beyond letters to her mother, but the reminiscences of her soul, spoken from beyond the guillotine, are never implausible.

Marie-Antoinette is a bit of a black hole: she sucks up narrative. To use Harold Bloom's favorite word, she is over-determined. There are so many explanations of her downfall, first as an adored queen and later as a human being. Her being Austrian was a problem; the Austrians were traditional enemies of France. Her marriage to the future Louis XVI was in fact planned in a pro-Austrian treaty cobbled together at the instigation of the savvy but politically untutored Mme de Pompadour, at about the time Marie-Antoinette was born. There is no question that Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe was a problem. Supplied by the ingenious Rose Bertin, the queen seemed to have no sense of limits: she should be well-dressed - expensively-dressed - at all times. Well-dressed, however, did not mean well-behaved; Marie-Antoinette hated the rituals of court life, and preferred to retreat to smaller palaces out of public (that is, aristocratic and official) view. Almost everybody hated the rituals of court life, but it was unwise of Marie-Antoinette to think that she could dispense with them. I will come back to this.

Having nothing to do with the character of the queen, no matter how much she spent on her wardrobe, there was the bankruptcy of France. This had been coming for a long time, at least since the end of the Seven Years' War (our "French and Indian"). Helping the new American republic repulse the British tyrant ...<.p>

Continue reading about Versailles at Portico.


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The reasons for the collapse of the French monarchy are about as numerous as those for the fall of the Roman Empire. One could trace the seeds back to Louis XIV's turning out of the nobility from positions of power in the royal government in reaction to the Fronde wars of his youth, which lead to the creation of a class of nobility without purpose, and a rapid rise of a professional, managerial middle class who would ultimately grasp for power in name, as well as in fact, at the first sign of royal weakness. Or one could look to the duc d'Orlean's move to have the Parlement repudiate the clauses in the Sun King's will whereby the Regent would have had to share control of the young Louis XV with Louis XIV's bastard son, M. le duc du Maine. This would come back to haunt the crown as that French political body, tamed by the Sun King, would raise its banner of assumed legislative authority once more based on this appeal of royalty to its "authority.

More personally, we might agree that Marie-Antionette's long period of childlessness, for which she was unfairly blamed, since the cause was Louis XVI's pain in getting erections and need for a circumcision before he could comfortably engage in the act of producing an heir, left her open to scurrilous attacks by an antipathetic populace and Court;foreign princesses are always deemed "foreign" until they become mother to the heir, as witness the dreadful early life of Ann of Austria, the Sun King's mother. This also may have induced the flight of the young queen from a Court in which she felt she had no real place; setting a dangerous precedent for her later during stormy times; if the Queen is not seen, is she really necessary?

It has been said that Versailles was a trap, and indeed it was, though it must be said that Louis XIV never felt that Versailles, as a tool of governance, was immutable. He fully expected, if one reads his memoirs and instructions to the Dauphin, that each king would remake the crown in his own image, consistent with history, of course.

The charge of outrageous spending levelled against Marie-Antionette, including her Rose Bertin fashions (though many were shockingly revealing for the time, especially for a queen to be seen wearing in public)and her private decorating follies were nothing compared to the costs of a Pompadour or duBarry, to say nothing of the grand proposed plan of Louis XVI to remake the entire town facade of Versailles, intended to increase the chateau's size dramatically and install a grand interior stair to the State rooms to replace the Escalier des Ambassadeurs, destroyed by Louis XV to satisfy the whim of his daughter to have larger quarters near her father.

Finally, it is a matter of a confluence of events and personalities, very simplistically summed up for Marie-Antionette as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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