Full title: Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie
I thought that after the King and Queen of France were taken by the Revolutionaries that what happened went like, “You were the monarchs but now we have a Republic. Off with your heads.” and boom, it was done. How wrong I was. Did you know, that both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were given very brief public “trials”? Did you know that Marie Antoinette languished in a prison for weeks after her husband was executed? Did you know that the bodies of both former monarchs were dumped in unmarked graves? Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days taught me so much about this horrific period of French history. At times, especially during the actual transcripts of the Queen’s trial, the story dragged, but for the most part, this was a fascinating study of the last days of a much maligned monarch.
“Generations of authors have reveled in reliving the queen’s reign amid the splendors of the court of Versailles and the Petit Trianon, but few have ever found the space (or perhaps the courage) in their voluminous biographies to narrate her final imprisonment in a fetid dungeon cell at the Conciergerie.” loc 198, ebook. I am a huge fan of historical fiction and I had never heard a whisper about this. Many thanks to Bashor for filling that gap!
The King promised his family to say goodbye before he was taken to the guillotine but he never went to them. Can you imagine the heartbreak?: “Say to the queen, my dear children, and my sister,” he continued, “that I had promised to see them this morning, but that I desired to spare them the agony of such a bitter separation twice over. How much it has cost me to depart without receiving their last embraces!” loc 862 ebook. How like a man to pull a stunt like that. Cruelly, Marie Antoinette was also separated from her children and her sister-in-law and transported to a different prison. As a mother myself, Marie Antoinette’s heartbreak about having her children taken from her was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.
Even though her sham 48 hour trial didn’t prove definitively that she had done anything wrong, Marie Antoinette was sentenced to death. Here is a passage that gives the gist of the thing: “Herman: You have never ceased for one moment wanting to destroy liberty. You wanted to reign at any price and retake the throne on the cadavers of patriots. Queen: Whether it was necessary to retake the throne or not, we only desired the happiness of France. If France was happy, we were always content.” loc 1901, ebook. Back and forth it went. Accusations of wrong doing, her denial, and then more accusations. I can’t believe that they killed her after that- it’s shocking what a mob mentality can justify.
But the public absolutely hated her. “It was also true that Marie Antoinette was “ill-treated” in the French press and elsewhere. An abundant number of provocative and obscene pamphlets were distributed throughout the capital, the provinces of France, and other European capitals. They argued not only that the queen corrupted the morals of her people but that her luxurious habits were the cause of their hunger. She was even said to powder her hair with the precious flour needed for the people’s bread.” loc 2046. Ugh. The press has always been a powerful tool to sway public opinion, but what sad results when that power is used generate hate rather than inform and educate.
Marie Antoinette was hard core to the end. She refused to take her last rites from priests who had sworn an oath to the Revolutionaries. This is what she said to the priest who demanded to hear her confession before she was led to her execution:“You are guilty,” said the priest. “Ah, sometimes careless,” said the queen. “Never guilty.” loc 3005 ebook. I may have to use that one.
Recommended for anybody who wants to know more about the last days of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette but also for those interested in what happens to a society when hatred and fear are allowed free reign. Some further reading: Abundance (excellent historical fiction about Marie Antoinette).
Thank you to NetGalley and Rowman & Littlefield Publishing for a free digital copy of this book! And, thank you for reading.