Well, it seems as though I am on a French Revolution kick this week! There’s my post from Monday about Theresia Tallien, and now there’s this. “Farewell, My Queen” by Chantal Thomas tells the story of Marie Antoinette’s last few days at Versailles right after the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The book was the winner of the 2002 Prix Femina, and a movie based on the novel starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette was released in France earlier this year.
The narrator is Madame Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, assistant reader to the Queen, and she states that the position was “a very minor office, made even less significant by the fact that the Queen had little taste for reading.” As an emigre who has sought refuge in Vienna after the outbreak of the Revolution, she is writing down what she remembers about those fateful few days following July 14. Through her memories, we witness the clockwork precision of the daily rituals of the ancient regime grind to a halt, and we watch as the hours of uncertainty give way to fear and then to panic as the nobles hurry to flee from the “chateau of cards.” We see Marie Antoinette’s fervid desire to leave, and Louis XVI’s inability to accept the reality of events around him. And in the end, Marie Antoinette rises to the occasion as Queen, urging her friends to flee the palace and the country while they can as she remains behind with her husband, knowing that this is the end of an era, and that whatever her fate may be, she must accept it.
Others, physically present around me, would blur and move farther away. The became a vague, indistinct background against which, suddenly, … she stood out.
Agathe’s memories of the Queen are those of someone who truly adored the woman whom she served. She has had the opportunity to see the woman behind the Queen, and Agathe becomes a sort of confidante to the Queen as the hours darken. Marie Antoinette is not painted as a silly, frivolous woman, but as someone who felt very deeply and who truly loved and cared about the people around her. During their final hours together, Marie Antoinette has Agathe read her mother’s letters to her, and it is then that we see how truly dire the Queen’s situation is: “She repeated the words for her own benefit: ‘I am losing all those whom I love, one after another.” Though she tries to remain as calm as possible, the Queen is becoming more aware of her impending doom, and though she could flee or entreat her staunchest friends to stay with her, she does not do any of these things. She knows that as Queen of France she must remain with her husband, the King, and do what she can to assist him, even though he is lost in all of the confusion. And as Queen, she must ensure that those whom she loves are able to flee to safety.
I am losing all those whom I love, and I am afflicted. But I shall not let my affliction get the better of me. I shall follow, in this as in all things, the example of my mother the Empress.
While the Polignacs and Agathe would remain with the Queen, she selflessly entreats them to leave Versailles and to seek refuge in another country so that they might be safe. She puts their safety and her adoration of them ahead of her own wishes, because she does not want them to meet the same fate that she might at the hands of the revolution. As they leave, the Queen sends them a letter: “O most loving of friends, adieu. a dreadful word, adieu, but it cannot be helped. I have only strength enough to send you this kiss. Marie Antoinette.”
And this is how Agathe remembers her Queen, not as some selfish, spoiled woman who had no concept of the plights of those around her, but as someone who knew that the world that she and her friends were living in was ending. While the Queen must accept whatever fate might bring her, she could at least prevent her friends and those whom she cared for from suffering as she did, so that they might survive, and, in the case of Agathe, her memory with them.