"Like everyone, I am born naked."
With this opening line of Naslund's compelling new novel, a very human Marie Antoinette invites readers to live her story as she herself experiences it. From the lush gardens of Versailles to the lights and gaiety of Paris, the verdant countryside of France, and finally the stark and terrifying isolation of a prison cell, the young queen's life is joyful, poignant, and harrowing by turns. As her world of unprecedented royal splendor crumbles, the charming Marie Antoinette matures into a heroine of inspiring stature, one whose nobility arises not from the circumstance of her birth but from her courageous spirit.
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, the young queen embraces her new family and the French people, and she is embraced in return. Eager to be a good wife and strong queen, she shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in doing so, fails to give her the thing 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 apart from the social life of the court, the queen allows herself to remain ignorant of the country's growing economic and political crises. She entrusts her soul to her women friends, her music teacher, her hairdresser, the ambassador from Austria, and a certain Swedish count so handsome that admirers label him "the Picture." When her innocent and well-chaperoned pilgrimage to watch the sun rise is viciously misrepresented in satiric pamphlets as a drunken orgy, the people begin to turn against her. Poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge as the royal family and many nobles are caught up in a murderous time known as "the Terror."
With penetrant insight into new historical scholarship and with wondrous narrative skill, Naslund offers an intimate, fresh, and dramatic re-creation of this compelling woman that goes beyond popular myth. Abundance reveals a compassionate and spontaneous Marie Antoinette who rejected the formality and rigid protocol of the court; an enchanting and tenderhearted outsider who was loved by her adopted homeland and people until she became the target of revolutionary cruelty and violence; a dethroned queen whose depth of character sustained her in even the worst of times.
Once again, Sena Jeter Naslund has shed new light on an important moment of historical change and made that time as real to us as the one we are living now. Exquisitely detailed, beautifully written, heartbreaking and powerful, Abundance is a novel that is impossible to put down.
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About the Author
Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.
Read an Excerpt
Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette
An Island in the Rhine River, May
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 his reality.
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 armsout 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.Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.