By Jack A. Urquhart ©2012 (992 words)
Recently the UK’s Mail Online ran an article entitled, “Do you have Celebrity Worship Syndrome?” along with a quiz “to measure the reader’s ‘CWS’ symptoms”. One of the T/F quiz statements was, “I enjoy watching my favourite celebrity”; another read, “I have a special bond with my celebrity.”
The piece put me in mind of Chantal Thomas’s engrossing historical novel, Farewell, My Queen, which I’d just finished reading. The link in my thought loop can probably be traced to Thomas’s description of life at Versailles, circa 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution—a time when celebrity worship remained enshrined in decades-old court ritual; a place where courtiers never ceased obsessing over the high and mighty or stopped touting their connections to the court’s most celebrated residents, Louis XVI and his glamorous but vacuous Queen, Marie Antoinette.
To my mind, Thomas’s novel makes a good case that answering in the affirmative to any of the The Mail’s CWS quiz statements would have been as risky to body and soul in 18th century France as it would be practically anywhere today. One could argue, as perhaps Thomas intended, that mindless celebrity worship, especially when celebrity is undeserved or ill bestowed, was and is a waste of time and human potential. However, that premise, even if proven, would not lessen the appeal of Thomas’s fictional account of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. Rather, Farewell, My Queen manages to be one of those guilty literary pleasures (the emphasis on ‘literary’ is intentional) akin to soaking up an especially well-produced episode (if there ever was such a thing) of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. That is because Thomas packs her novel with enough glamour, enough excess, enough suspense—enough insider information—to inspire fresh interest in a tale whose conclusion is no mystery.
It helps that, besides being a gifted writer, Thomas is well qualified to take on her subject. An expert in 18th century literature and a scholar of French history, she gets down to business quickly by introducing Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the novel’s first-person narrator. An all but invisible court functionary, Laborde provides a fly on the wall perspective of the French Court during the early days of the revolution (Thomas adds a soupçon of irony by making her narrator a lowly “reader to the Queen”).
First encountered in 1810, some twenty years after the Queen’s execution, Laborde is living the life of an elderly exile in Vienna. Yet neither time nor distance can diminish the image of the woman she still calls “my Queen.” A dyed-in-the-wool royal groupie, Laborde begins her narrative by attempting to replace a queen known for her profligacy, who even at the height of her powers was deeply unpopular, with a rose-petal-pink goddess—kind, fragrant, beautiful, “a light that never goes out.”
That she fails in the attempt can be attributed to a classic case of mission creep.
Laborde’s starry-eyed portrait of Marie Antoinette as a beautifully turned out, gentle sovereign—a Queen who dispenses kindness to courtiers and servants alike—is richly detailed. Yet, the narrator’s idyll shatters when she begins to include the less savory aspects of court life. It turns out that one of the entrancing afternoons Laborde recounts—hours spent observing the Queen thumb the pages of a fashion magazine—occurred simultaneous to the storming of the Bastille. Likewise, the royal banquets Laborde describes (“four main courses, twenty side dishes, six joints of meat, fifteen regular desserts, thirty little desserts, a dozen platters of pastry…”) are either gobbled by the royals—or in the Queen’s case, picked over and discarded; meanwhile, ordinary French citizens starve to death. According to Laborde, even the gilded cages at the royal zoo house sickly, neglected animals.
And then there are the narrator’s memories of the palace itself, Louis XIV’s magnificent château famed for its Hall of Mirrors, for its richly appointed apartments, its priceless paintings and statuary. Laborde’s Versailles, however, is (literally) a seat of pestilence: its beautifully furnished rooms, infested by rats; its lavish gardens constructed upon reclaimed swamplands still swarming with mosquitoes. In fact, Thomas repeatedly invokes the château’s deceptive splendor as a metaphor for what ails the court and the country. Everywhere, it seems, there is decay and corruption lurking just below a pretty façade—a façade that is only a few days away from destruction.
Things go south in a hurry when King Louis XVI submits to the National Assembly and dismisses his foreign army.
Left unprotected at the wide-open château de Versailles, the courtiers panic as news of the countrywide riots spreads. The Paris mob is on the march, headed for the château, a list of “286 heads that have to fall” in hand. In short order, the freeloading nobility, like rats from a sinking ship, flee the palace.
But not Louis, the stout little man who never wanted to be King, who prefers forging locks in the royal smithy to the tedious rituals of the court and the incomprehensible duties of government. And not his (in)famous Queen.
In a final act of courage, the royal couple remains at Versailles to meet their fate.
Laborde narrates these final days paying particular witness to the frazzled and dazed Queen as she rallies to arrange the flight of her favorites, including Laborde herself, who eventually escapes to Switzerland.
The novel’s conclusion is sudden, providing little in the way of closure. But perhaps that is an appropriate narrative choice on the author’s part. In fact, it may be that Farewell, My Queen demonstrates how quickly things can come crashing down—no matter how celebrated, or deeply entrenched in seemingly unassailable ritual and/or culture.
Surely this remains a worthwhile aide-mémoire in the twenty-first century given how the powerful (and those who idolize them) are just as apt as ever to be blinded by the klieg light glare of celebrity. So disastrously blind, in fact, that sometimes they cannot discern how fragile is the foundation upon which their illusions rest.
Farewell, My Queen, by Chantal Thomas; First published in the U.S. 2003 by George Braziller, Inc.
Originally published in France 2002 by Éditions du Seuil under the title Les Adieux à la Reine.