The Queen's Lover
Francine du Plessix Gray
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Set on the eve of the French Revolution, The Queen’s Lover tells the remarkableand until now untoldstory of the love affair between Marie Antoinette and the dashing Swedish aristocrat Count Axel von Fersen. Including actual letters of Fersen’s, the novel assumes the form of a fictional memoir of the Count’s extraordinary life. Gray takes off from the historical facts and builds from them a richly imagined story of love and intrigue, secrecy and slander, violence and revolution.
The novel begins in 1774, just as the forces that would produce both the American and French Revolutions are gathering strength. Fersen first meets the dazzling Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of AustriaHungary and soon to become the Queen of France, at a masquerade ball. Fersen is entranced by the dauphine, especially by her eyes, which one moment are “merry, vivacious, mocking” and the next “most melancholy, revealing a very great solitude and anxiety” (p. 8). Marie Antoinette is equally captivated by the strength and charm of Fersen, so unlike the indecisive, sexually passive man she will marry, Louis XVI. Their love blossoms and Fersen becomes a friend to the Royal family, a regular presence at Versailles.
But when Sweden decides to send troops to aid the American revolutionaries, Fersen readily joins the cause, serving with exceptional valor. When he returns, France itself is on the verge of anarchy, the revolution there just beginning to take shape, and the monarchy is under siege. The Royals have been forced from Versailles to Tuileires by an increasingly hostile French people. Fersen orchestrates a daring escape, but when it fails the King and Queen are taken to Paris, imprisoned, tried and found guilty of various acts of treason. They are sentenced to death, a fate which drives Fersen into an agonizing state of helplessness and rage. News of their executions deepens his despair, which he tries to relieve through a series of ruthless sexual conquests.
The antiRoyalist terror unleashed by Robespierre and other revolutionaries sweeps across France, and eventually makes itself felt in Sweden. There, a chastened but unbowed Fersen must face the same kind of mob violence that destroyed his friend Louis XVI and the love of his life, Marie Antoinette.
The history of the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed it are well known, but Gray imbues new life into this material by viewing it through the lens of an impassioned and doomed love affair. Fersen’s eyewitness account of some of the most dramatic moments in history makes for fascinating reading, and the novel as a whole gives a noticeably nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Hated in the abstract, as symbols of oppressive monarchy, the King and Queen prove to be very human, humble, and loving towards their subjects. Indeed, it is the King’s love of rubbing elbows with ordinary citizens that helps seal his fate. Likewise, Marie Antoinette, though reviled as a frivolous and possibly traitorous ruler, proves herself to be, in the end, a thoughtful and kind woman, who bears her suffering and the torments of persecution, in prison and in the courtroom, with a dignity befitting a saint.
Suspenseful, emotionally powerful, and beautifully written, The Queen’s Lover gives readers not only a heartwrenching love story but a fresh take on one of the most tumultuous eras in human history.
Francine du Plessix Gray is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and the author of numerous essays and books, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants, and Soviet Women. She lives with her husband, the painter Cleve Gray.
- What makes the love affair between Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette so powerful and so poignant?
- What is the appeal of novels that weave together historical fact and literary imagination, as The Queen’s Lover does? How is the novel able to take us inside the French Revolution in ways a strictly historical account never could?
- What is the effect of including excerpts from Fersen’s actual letters in the novel, as well as chapters narrated by his sister Sophie?
- Has reading the novel changed your view of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI? In what ways does the novel offer a more nuanced portrait of the Royal couple than exists in the popular imagination? How do Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette bear their suffering and imprisonment? How do many of the French people, who are sworn enemies of the Royals, regard them when they actually meet their King and Queen?
- Axel von Fersen is a complex character. He fights for American liberty but remains a committed Royalist. At various points in his memoir, he calls himself a “voluptuary,” “an aesthete,” a “fickle Don Juan,” and a “snob.” He fears his readers may begin to dislike him, but also admits he does not care what people think of him. His detractors see him as haughty and aloof. Others, like the Duchess of Sodermanland, defend him as “the most honest and loyal of friends. He is full of tact. . . . He is not any haughtier than anyone needs to inspire respect” (p. 262). How do you view Fersen, finally? What are his chief virtues? What are his most conspicuous flaws? What makes him such an engaging character?
- Why is Marie Antoinette so reviled and slandered by the French? Are the criticisms of her in any way deserved? What trumpedup charges lead to her execution?
- When Axel reads the news of Marie Antoinette’s death, he writes: “I felt nothing; I was upset that I wasn’t more upset. . . . Why were my emotions not even tinged with sorrow? I worried. Was I a monster” (p. 223)? Why does he react, or fail to react, in this way to the loss of the love of his life? How do you explain his behavior in the months following the Queen’s tragic death?
- After the failed Varennes escape attempt devised by Fersen, the King writes General de Bouille who tried to help him: “You risked everything for and you did not succeed. Fate was against your plans and mine. Circumstances paralyzed my will, and your courage and all our preparations came to naught. . . . Accept my thanks, monsieur, I only wish it were in my power to offer you some token of gratitude” (p. 131). What aspect of the King’s character shines through in this passage? Was the escapeand indeed the violent death of the King and Marie Antoinettefated? Or simply the result of unfortunate miscalculations and historical forces beyond anyone’s control?
- What qualities of character does Marie Antoinette reveal during her trial? What is the effect of her last words, as she stumbles over the executioner’s foot: “I beg your pardon, monsieur, I didn’t do it on purpose” (p. 231)?
- Why does Axel say, near the end of the novel, that despite all his medals and honors and sexual conquests, he felt “empty, utterly empty . . . with no purpose in mind beyond continuing to live an existence that I felt would grow increasingly vacuous, seeing that I was vain, selfcentered, and morose” (p. 265)? What has brought him to such a state? How has he been changed by the events he’s lived through? Does he arrive at greater selfknowledge because of what he’s been through?
- After Axel is killed by a vicious, drunken mob, his sister Sophie has a giant oak inscribed with these words: “May Truth recalled by time protect in History his memory and render justice to his virtue” (p. 284). Does The Queen’s Lover fulfill this wish by rendering a more just view of Axel von Fersen?