I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette and I tend to like the choices for the French Prix Femina. Chantal Thomas’ novel Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine won the prize in 2002 and has been been made into a movie in 2012. Chantal Thomas is an academic, specialized in the XVIIIe century. Farewell, my Queen was her first novel.
What appealed to me was that she chose to tell the story from the point of view of Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader. The book begins in 1810, in Vienna. Agathe-Sidonie is 65 years old and looking back on her life at Versailles, especially, her three last days there— July 14, July 15 and July 16 1789. At the end of the last day, most of the close entourage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI will have fled Versailles. The queen is left behind although she’s in great danger. Agathe-Sidonie is told to flee with the de Polignacs.
Focussing on three days, describing the many rituals, the rooms and apartments of the people living at Versailles, and contrasting Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon and at Versailles, give an incredible insight into the life of this ill-fated woman. Her fears and joys are rendered vividly, her character comes to life. Agathe-Sidonie is not part of the entourage, she’s just a better sort of servant, which allows Chantal Thomas to play with proximity and distance, the effect of which is quite arresting. At times, we see the queen from afar, the way her people saw her, at times, when Agathe-Sidonie reads to her, or sits in her rooms, all but forgotten, we get a very intimate look at the poor queen.
While I think the French Revolution was more than justified, I was still moved by this account, by the growing fear of the courtiers. Many of the scenes take place during the night and, since most of the servants abandoned the court, they take place in obscurity, which enhances the feeling of doom and danger.
What I liked best is how Chantal Thomas used the descriptions of light and weather to underline emotions. I equally loved her use of imagery and symbols. One of the most beautiful was evoked when Agathe-Sidonie looks back and thinks of the season of the queen’s balls. Marie Antoinette was very fond of fashion. Of course that was one of the things she was blamed for the most. Before the season of the balls she would order numerous new dresses, one per ball. Those dresses would be hidden from everyone’s eyes until the day of the ball, but the inhabitants of Versailles could see them being transported back and forth from the tailor’s rooms to the queen’s rooms. The dresses were wrapped in white taffeta, and called by many “the shadows of the queen”. When Agathe -Sidonie remembers this, the queen herself has become a mere shadow.
I wondered often why people were so fascinated by Marie Antoinette. When you read Farewell, my Queen, you get a pretty good idea why. She must have been very gentle, joyful, playful, and affectionate. She loved beautiful things and everything around her had to be perfect. I felt pity for this girl who came to the court at the age of 15 and was disgraced and guillotined at 37.
It’s chilling to read about the last moments at Versailles, and how even her most intimate friends like the Duchess de Polignac fled the palace. Because Agathe-Sidonie loved the queen and her life at Versailles, the book is very nostalgic.
Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.
I’m tempted to watch the movie but I’m afraid it took a lot of liberties and is very different from the book.