A castle in Germany with an underground escape route into the forest… A reclusive, veiled woman known to her companion as “Your Grace,” and to the countryside as “the Dark Countess…” Rumors of a coffin containing no body, only a wax figurine…
Today’s book is a very detailed but quite readable biography of Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the only member of her family to survive the French Revolution. But you might sometimes wonder whether you have stumbled into a Gothic novel instead. Poor Marie-Thérèse was a magnet not only for political schemers, but also for conspiracy theories that read like the most sensational fiction.
Marie-Thérèse was born at Versailles during the hot summer of 1778, amid rumors that visiting Benjamin Franklin had “electrified” the weather. The infant “Madame Royale” had a staff of nearly 100, including four assistant governesses, a royal hairdresser, dentist, cradle rocker, wet nurses, and servants to serve the servants. Her privileged childhood was a short one, though. By the age of ten she weighed every word she spoke, believing herself surrounded by enemies and spies. She was 13 when her family was imprisoned after trying to escape the country.
After three years in the Temple Prison, during which she was never told of the deaths of her mother, aunt, and brother, Marie-Thérèse was secretly traded to Austria, her mother’s birth country, in exchange for French prisoners of war. A political pawn from the moment of her release, she married for duty and for France, accepting the husband chosen for her by the French king-in-exile. Although the marriage remained childless, she worked for a Bourbon restoration until her death in 1851, a royalist to the end.
She spent much of her life in exile, returning to France whenever the monarchy was restored only to be chased out again. During Napoleon’s 100 days, when the king fled the country, it was Marie-Thérèse who remained to rally and berate the troops. (Napoleon called her “the only man in her family.”) She took to wearing diamonds sewn into the hem of her dress, as life had taught her that you never know when you might have to flee the country.
Pious, serious-minded, she made practically a cult of worship of her murdered parents. She prayed before a chest containing relics of their deaths, including her father’s bloodstained shirt, brought to her as a (somewhat questionable) gift. All her life she publicly insisted that her brother had died in the Temple Prison, while privately investigating every claim that he escaped. People claiming to be the Dauphin took up her time and caused her much pain. The saddest was the widow of Simon, the Dauphin’s execrable jailor, who later in life became convinced that she had helped smuggle the boy out of prison in a laundry basket.
Marie-Thérèse never met with any of the pretenders in person. Was she afraid that a real Dauphin would realize that she was not the real Marie-Thérèse? Was she raised—and, at some point, switched—with her father’s illegitimate daughter? Nagel explores some of the conspiracy theories, but isn’t convinced.
The back-and-forth of French politics is sometimes hard to follow, but the book is generous with timelines, illustrations, and genealogies to help keep it all straight. This is a great companion piece to Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France, even down to the (thwarted) attempt at DNA analysis to lay rumors to rest.
Check the WRL catalog for Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror.
Or try the CD audiobook.