Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tragedy of Royal France


I was very touched to read Elena Maria Vidal's novels, Trianon and Madame Royale. In these painstakingly researched, beautifully written and deeply felt works, she paints a compelling portrait of the tragedy of the French royal family in the wake of the Revolution. Drawing heavily on first-hand accounts of the period, told through vignettes and reminiscences, the story is incredibly (indeed, painfully) vivid. It is a tale of Christian fortitude amidst dynastic downfall and national apocalypse.

In Trianon, correcting many misconceptions (such as the King as feeble idiot and the Queen as decadent airhead), Vidal provides a moving and intimate portrayal of the tragic Louis XVI and the viciously maligned Marie-Antoinette. Their love for God, each other, their children and the people of France are all conveyed with poignant intensity. Ultimately, they are killed for the ideals they represent as Catholic monarchs, facing their doom with the charity and magnanimity of martyrs.

Madame Royale tells the story of Marie-Thérèse, Duchesse d'Angoulême, only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. It centers on the "Bourbon Restoration" (1814-1830), a period simmering with secret warfare between revolution and reaction. In Trianon, faith gives the King and Queen the courage to face death; in Madame Royale, faith gives their daughter the courage to face life. Marie-Thérèse's story is truly one of bloodless martyrdom. Severely traumatized by the terrible experiences of her youth, trapped in an unhappy, barren marriage, surrounded by plots, intrigues, and political upheavals, she perseveres in faith and good works. Her struggle to restore the Catholic monarchy is ultimately a losing battle, and an immense sense of loss and weariness pervades the book. Particularly poignant are the passages describing Marie-Thérèse's haunting doubts regarding the fate of her little, lost brother and her fruitless search for him. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note...

I have read several reviews claiming the books are too religious and/or over-idealize the protagonists. I only want to say that the devout faith of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Madame Royale is well-documented, and it would not be realistic to ignore or downplay the role of Catholicism in their lives. Nor do I think the royal family are over-idealized. Their spiritual journeys are presented as hard and painful and they struggle with human failings along the way. Against his conscience, for instance, the King signs the Civil Constitution of the Clergy under duress, an action he later bitterly repents. Before maturing gracefully into a noble wife and mother, Marie-Antoinette is portrayed as a kind, charming, but imperfect young girl, apt to be headstrong and rash. Marie-Thérèse's rigidity and refusal to compromise the divine right of kings, coupled with her cold manner (although these are understandable results of her early traumas), contribute to alienating many from the cause of the Catholic monarchy. Nonetheless, the fact remains that she, like her parents, ultimately attains a high degree of spiritual heroism.

9 comments:

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for the wonderful review of my books!

Matterhorn said...

You are most welcome. Thank you for writing them!

Matterhorn said...

I should note that the phrase about the "charity and magnanimity of martyrs" is based on a comment made about Mary Queen of Scots in the Catholic Encyclopedia. I thought these qualities described Louis and Antoinette well, too.

MadMonarchist said...

Their faith and uprightness could probably stand to be a little over-emphasized given how drastically they have been misrepresented in the opposite direction. I was reminded recently while writing about the Princess of Monaco Louise d'Aumont how Queen Marie Antoinette was a woman with high standards who did not accept un-ladylike behavior; often the same sort she herself is unjustly accused of displaying. If there had been a woman who behaved the way the Queen is often accused of Marie Antoinette would not have associated with her!

Matterhorn said...

True, she was known in her inner circle for her modesty, courtesy and high moral standards.

elena maria vidal said...

Mad Monarchist, what you say is so true.

Christine said...

These have been on my reading list for some time, but I've finally gotten my hands on them and am enjoying them immensely. They are elegantly written and truly inspiring and moving.

Ms. Lucy said...

This is a splendid review Matterhorn, and I almost missed it! (I've been really slacking on reading my favourite blogs these days..time is what I need)
Back to your review...I think you couldn,t have said it better. Trianon (haven't read Madame Royale yet) is like a setting straight of accounts. This King and Queen's lives have been seriously misconstrued by many and I feel this book tells it as it really happened. But it is tremendously sad. Yes, it does have a very Catholic view- but then, how can it not? These lives were held up by this very core and it would seem only right to give the Faith the importance it should as reflective of these Royals. Thank you for this heartfelt, very clear and wonderful review.

Matterhorn said...

They are beautiful novels but heartbreaking because you come to feel so much for the royal family.

The way the King was portrayed, btw, reminded me of Albert I.