Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinetteby Sena Jeter Naslund
Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas—eager to be a good wife and strong queen—she warmly embraces her adopted nation and its citizens.… See more details below
Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas—eager to be a good wife and strong queen—she warmly embraces her adopted nation and its citizens. She shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in so doing is unable to give what she and the people of France desire most: a child and an heir to the throne. Deeply disappointed and isolated in her own intimate circle, and apart from the social life of the court, she allows herself to remain ignorant of the country's growing economic and political crises, even as poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge. The young queen, once beloved by the common folk, becomes a target of scorn, cruelty, and hatred as she, the court's nobles, and the rest of the royal family are caught up in the nightmarish violence of a murderous time called "the Terror."
With penetrating insight and with wondrous narrative skill, Sena Jeter Naslund offers an intimate, fresh, heartbreaking, and dramatic reimagining of this truly compelling woman that goes far beyond popular myth—and she makes a bygone time of tumultuous change as real to us as the one we are living in now.
The New York Times
That's not to imply that there aren't pleasures to be found in Abundance. Au contraire: They're abundant. Naslund commands historical details to portray the world's most extravagant palace in all its dazzling splendor and inane ceremony. Her study of contemporary memoirs and letters allows her to speak in a voice that conveys the queen's delicacy and earnestness as she strives to be the embodiment of peace between Austria and France.
The Washington Post
Appropriately, Burney begins her performance in the adorable upper registers of the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, shipped to France by her mother, the Empress of Austria, to marry the 15-year-old Dauphin and peacefully conjoin France and Austria. Unfortunately, Burney continues in this insipid tone throughout her reading, which is understandable as Naslund (Ahab's Wife) portrays Marie as Little Mary Sunshine until the moment of her death by guillotine at age 38. Her love affair with a Swedish diplomat is strictly platonic and her inability to empathize with the French people is laid to her paternalistic advisers. All this may or may not be historically true, but it leaves listeners with Marie's diary-style descriptions of her personal and court life: the Dauphin's sexual limitations, the birth of her children, her clothes and hairstyles, girlish friendships and expensive banquets. The abridgment reinforces this focus by cutting little early on, then skipping quickly from one incident to another as the revolution evolves. Naslund's writing is clear and vivid, but offers little for those seeking a deeper understanding of the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Simultaneous release with the William Morrow hardcover (Reviews, May 29). (Oct.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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AbundanceA Novel of Marie Antoinette
By Sena Jeter Naslund
William MorrowCopyright © 2006 Sena Jeter Naslund
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Island in the Rhine River, May 1770
Like everyone, I am born naked.
I do not refer to my actual birth, mercifully hidden in the silk folds of memory, but to my birth as a citizen of France citoyenne, they would say. Having shed all my clothing, I stand in a room on an island in the middle of the Rhine River naked. My bare feet occupy for this moment a spot considered to be neutral between beloved Austria and France. The sky blue silk of my discarded skirt wreathes my ankles, and I fancy I am standing bare footed in a puddle of pretty water.
My chest is as flat as a shield, marked only by two pink rosebuds of nipples. I refuse to be afraid. In the months since I became fourteen, I've watched these pleasant rosebuds becomeing a bit plump and pinker. Now the fingers and hands of my attendants are stretching toward my neck to remove a smooth circlet of Austrian pearls.
I try to picture the French boy, whom I have never seen, extending large hands toward me, beckoning. What is he doing this very moment, deep in the heart of France? At fifteen, a year older than myself, he must be tall and strong. There must be other words than tall and strong to think of to describe him, to help me imagine and embody hisreality.
My mother, Empress of Austria, has told me how to anticipate the meeting of our bodies and all the events of my life to come; I am always in her prayers. Every month I will write to her and she to me, and our private letters will travel by our own couriers between France and Austria. When I try to picture my future husband, Louis Auguste, standing in the forests of France with hands and arms out stretched to me, I can only envision my most dear mother, dressed in black, sitting behind me like a dark wedge at her desk; she awaits the courier bearing a white rectangular packet, the envelope that represents me.
After I am married at Versailles, when Louis Auguste and I are alone in bed, certain events will follow. We will copulate through the door at the bottom of my body; next, I become pregnant. Nine months after my marriage I give birth to a baby. There will be many witnesses when my body, then age fifteen, opens to produce a future king. Years from then, after my husband has died, this baby will be the seventeenth Louis, King of France. This is what I know.
While my ladies flutter like bright butterflies around me, I glance at my naked body, a slender worm. Louis Auguste and I must be much the same, as all humans are really much the same, except for the difference of sex. We all have two legs mine are slender supporting a torso; two arms sprout on either side of a bodily cabinet, which contains the guts and bladder in the lower compartment and the heaving lungs and heart in the up per section. In between, for women, is the chamber called the womb. From the trunk, a neck rises up like a small lookout tower whose finial is the head.
Mine is a graceful body made strong by dancing and riding and of a milky porcelain color. Recently a few curly threads emerged from the triangle between my legs. Squeezing my thighs together, I try to shelter this delicate garden because my new hair seems frail and flimsy.
The French word for him, the prince who will become my husband and king, is Dauphin, and the French word for me, who will be his bride, is the same, but with a small letter e, curled like a snail in its flinty house, at the end of the word: Dauphine. I have many French words to learn.
My darling Austrian ladies sail around me in their bright silk dresses cerise, and emerald, deep blue with yellow stripes; their throats and sleeves bedecked with frothy, drooping lace. Like dancers, they bend and swoop to gather the garments I've shed; other ladies, standing patiently, hold my new French clothing folded across their forearms, cloth of gold and filmy lavender.
A flock of goose bumps sweeps over my bare flesh.
Antonia, the pretty mouths of my ladies breathe, Antonia. Their eyes glisten with unshed tears, for I am about to abandon my old name.
The stern French require that I step forward, naked, with no ribbon, memento, ruby, or brooch of Austrian de sign. To my ladies, I display my open palms so they may witness and affirm that I leave empty handed and am beholden in no way to my native Austria. Resplendent in rich colors, they draw near, in a solemn circle, to regard my vacant hands.
My nakedness complete, now I die as Maria Antonia, Archduchess of Austria, daughter of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria.
To be her worthy daughter, I will that my chilled flesh unpucker itself and become all smooth and lovely. Clothed nobly in nothing but my own skin, described as pearly by some in its translucent sheen, I begin the donning of French clothes, no longer Maria Antonia but my French self, now named: Marie Antoinette.
I gasp my first damp breath of French air on this small island embraced by the arms of the rushing Rhine and re member the admonition of my mother: Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel.
So said my mother, Empress of Austria, and I will love them, and they will love me, and I will love my husband, who is shy, they say, and the old King, Louis XV, who is not my future husband's father (that Dauphin having died without his ever having become king) but his grandfather; and I will love the maiden aunts of my future husband, Louis Auguste, who will become Louis XVI, God willing (but not soon, not soon I hope and pray, for in fact I know that not only my unformed body but also my spirit is still that of a child), and I will love the Ducde Choiseul, the great foreign minister of France, who has made my happiness come about by mating me with Louis Auguste, whom I have never seen yet and I will love the Count Mercy d'Argenteau, for he is Austrian Austrian! and my mother's friend and our no, not "our" but "the" Austrian ambassador to France. I will love them all, especially Choiseul the foreign minister and Mercy the Austrian ambassador, even as I have been instructed always to love those who further our cause the peace of Europe. And I will find new friends, my very own friends, to love as though they were sisters.
Excerpted from Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund Copyright © 2006 by Sena Jeter Naslund. Excerpted by permission.
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