Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman by Stefan Zweig, is a fascinating study, bringing together Zweig's expertise in historical research with his enjoyable skills as a writer of fiction. First published in 1932, Marie Antoinette has recently been re-published -- as have many of Zweig's other books. I enjoyed reading it and seeing the illustrations, such as the one above.
Although I have read a bit about the French Revolution and what led up to it (in historic works like Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama or fiction like City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy) I was surprised at how little I knew of the central role that Queen Marie Antoinette actually played during the complex events of her time.
Marie Antoinette's character development -- as Zweig documented and brought it to life -- was portrayed in a most fascinating way. In the early years of her reign, she was a self-indulgent, pleasure seeking, irresponsible adolescent and young woman. As the Revolution began to threaten her husband the king, she developed a sense of responsibility. or as Zweig writes: "Too late, Marie Antoinette had grasped in the very depths of her soul that she was destined to become a historical figure, and this need for transcending the limitations of her own time intensified her forces to an extreme." (Kindle Locations 6223-6225). By the end, Zweig shows her as a completely different, and highly self-aware and dignified victim.
Zweig, in my reading experience, always seems to present quite a bit about what his characters ate -- a subject I find especially interesting. Though there are many fascinating things in the book, I'll present a few of the food passages.
The illustration above, for example, shows the royal family at their dinner when their real imprisonment in a former Knights' Templar fortress in Paris called "The Temple." Zweig explains how their provisions were arranged:
There was a liberal supply of food and drink. No less than thirteen persons were appointed to minister to the pleasures of the table! At his midday meal there were at least three soups, two entrées, two roasts, four entremets, compotes, fruits, malmsey, claret, and champagne — so that in less than three months the expenses of the royal kitchen mounted up to no less than thirty-five thousand livres." (Kindle Locations 8392-8396).The abundance of food in their prison may have been modest compared to life in the palace, but the king was incredibly fond of good food, and never lost his appetite, even just before his inevitable death. For example, the royal family were well-provided with food during a failed attempt to flee the Revolution somewhat earlier, when a huge carriage tried to take them away from Versailles:
"The liberally stocked food baskets were opened, and a hearty breakfast was eaten off silver platters; the bones of the chickens and the empty wine bottles were disposed of through the carriage windows; the worthy guardsmen were not forgotten." (Kindle Locations 6921-6923).On this aborted voyage, the king and queen and their children were intercepted, and returned to captivity in Versailles:
"On this June 21, 1791, Marie Antoinette, in the thirty-sixth year of her life and in the seventeenth year of her reign, for the first time entered the house of a French bourgeois. That was the only interruption of her progress from palace to palace and from prison to prison. She had first to pass through the shop, smelling of rancid oil, sausage, and spices. Then, by a sort of companion ladder, the royal party — Madame la Baronne de Korff as ostensible chief, the Queen as governess, and Louis as a bewigged servant — mounted to the first story, where there were two rooms, a bedroom and a parlor, low-ceilinged, poor-looking, and dirty." (Kindle Locations 7043-7049).
Marie Antoinette was even well-provided for during her final imprisonment in a damp cell in the Conciergerie, after the king had been beheaded and her children taken from her. As did many of her guards and jailors, the woman assigned to her in this cell was taken with her queenly behavior:
"As far as prison rules were concerned, all that the head warder’s wife had to do for the ex-Queen was to clean out her room and provide her with rough meals. This good woman, however, cooked the most dainty food she could procure; she offered to dress Marie Antoinette’s hair; every day she procured from another quarter of the town a bottle of drinking water which Marie Antoinette found preferable to that supplied in the prison." (Kindle Locations 9240-9243).As she was taken away to the Guillotine, Marie Antionette seemed uninterested in food, eating a few sips of soup out of politeness and sympathy for her jailor. Zweig portrays the crowds waiting to see her death, including a description of how they passed the time waiting for the spectacle: "Between times, for refreshments, one bought lemonade, rolls, or nuts. The great scene was worth a little patience." (Kindle Locations 10211-10212).