Farewell, My Queen

Written by Chantal Thomas
Review by Delmer Baer

This story of Marie-Antoinette takes place over three days at Versailles, starting with 14 July, 1789. The Hall of Mirrors and other well-known grandeurs are described, but it is the smaller areas like the Queen’s Gilt Study that come across more memorably. “And all that gold, applied over the white wainscoting and around the mirrors, in garlands, ribbons, delicate friezes, profiled sphinxes, over the ledges of the mantelpiece, the elbow rests of the armchairs, the table legs and the harp strings, was like a wondrous curtain of rain…” (p. 93)

The main building stinks of the “exudations” of France’s nobility and their servants, while rats and mice flourish on dainty food dropped everywhere. Only at the Petit Triton can Marie-Antoinette escape the monotonous cycle of what Versailles calls “the Perfect Day,” a blend of formalized pleasures and religious observance. The narrator’s job is to read worthwhile books to the Queen, but Marie-Antoinette would rather hear books about fashion, and she prefers touching fabric to hearing about it. The narrator wanders through the palace, meeting a gloomy historian, gradually hearing what is happening miles away in Paris. Louis XVI gives up his army and puts himself at the mercy of the National Assembly, but the book is about personality, not politics.

The Queen packs, but the King decides to stay. The royal children’s governess, the Duchesse de Polignac, is among the aristocrats who are sent away. The narrator hotly denies the charge of lesbianism between the Queen and the governess, but provides ample evidence of the Queen’s affection and some suggestive physical contacts. If you’re looking for romantic thrills, this is not the book, but it gives a sumptuous picture of a way of life about to die.