A society dame with the shrill voice of a street vendor hides her lover upstairs, then steals up for nocturnal raptures. A gay king who can’t stomach his queen sends his most trusted courtier to impregnate her. A palace congested with vermin and lice harbors lamb chops and cakes tucked deep into the upholstery. A queen fleeing the scourge of revolution relies on a careless hairdresser to get her to safety. What’s not to love about history!
History is what you get in Francine du Plessix Gray’s deeply intelligent novel “The Queen’s Lover.” Not history of the Sofia Coppola variety, mind you, in which Marie Antoinette is a bubblehead, giggling her way through a fog of silliness until her head is removed from the finery. This is History with a capital H, served up with relish. Packed with names, dates and research and bristling with a lively correspondence, du Plessix Gray’s book gives us fiction with a full dose of fact.
That doesn’t mean it won’t entertain you. How could the story of Marie Antoinette’s Swedish lover and their trysts in the king’s palace fail to engage a reader? There is no dearth of incident here. No shortage of fascinating details. Filled with heroes, villains and intricate plots — noble as well as nefarious — the chronicle of this tragic romance puts a new face on an old story and holds an enigma to the light.
The enigma is Axel von Fersen, a dapper 19-year-old count from Stockholm, who is admitted into the intimate circle of French royals before Louis and Marie Antoinette are crowned king and queen. Like Axel, Marie Antoinette is 19 — except that she has been married for five years. Her husband is a scant year older. When this story begins, she and her callow new friend are at that cloudy, indeterminate phase before adulthood, before revolution, before the carnage that will see out their world.
Du Plessix Gray is not new to this sort of story. She has produced two novels in the course of her 81 years, as well as histories, biographies and an astute family memoir. Born in Warsaw of a Russian mother and a French viscount, she knows what it means to live on the margins of change. She has written about it in “Simone Weil,” “At Home with the Marquis de Sade,” “Madame de Stael,” “Soviet Women” and countless works of journalism about cultural disjuncture. She is singularly equipped to tell us how revolution can alter love.
Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette start their friendship innocently enough, sealing their mutual fascination at a masked ball months before King Louis XVI’s coronation. He is “ ‘Lange Fersen,’ ‘tall Fersen,’ ” he of majestic stature and long, elegant limbs. He has thick auburn hair, an open brow, a well-shaped mouth and large, dark, melancholy eyes that women find most “entrancing.” She, in contrast, is a delicate beauty with golden hair. The first time he lays eyes on her, he is struck by “the extraordinary incandescence of her skin,” matched only by her eyes, which are lit by a “dark-blueness, akin to that deep blue the sky takes on in the predusk hours of a brilliant day.”
Together, they discuss Saint Augustine’s “Confessions,” attend the opera, coo over their dogs, play backgammon. King Louis XVI, who is very fond of Axel, is his total opposite: hulking, gauche, sloppy — a loaf who eats voraciously, spilling crumbs and gravy onto his capacious chest. Clueless as to how to consummate his marriage for a full seven years, young Louis is the object of considerable ridicule. But the king whom Axel comes to know is warm, kind, fiercely intelligent and, when his children are finally born, deeply in love with his wife.
All the same, the royals are hardly a cozy family. The court that du Plessix Gray brings to life is filled with intrigue and concupiscence. For all its gilded grandeur, Versailles is a filthy, toxic place: infested with rats, choked with human stench, soiled by beggars and prostitutes who relieve themselves in corners of the grand galleries. No wonder the courtiers are so addicted to smelling salts. Little wonder the queen is beguiled by a fastidious Swede.
By 20, they are intimates; by 25, they are lovers, hurrying to a bower above the queen’s chambers. In time, the revolution will change all that, as the country falls into economic ruin and the French find the scapegoat they need in their glamorous foreign queen. “L’Autruchienne,” they call her, emphasis on chienne: a pun on “Austrian” that combines “ostrich” and “bitch.” They begin to howl for her head, demand that her intestines be carved out and distributed among them.
Du Plessix Gray tells this from alternating points of view: Axel’s and his beloved sister’s. The story hews closely to a rich lode of correspondence, particularly on the Swedish side. The narrative may run aground now and then because of an excessive reliance on lengthy quotations or an instinct to overexplain, but it never suffers for lack of color. Du Plessix Gray paints a vivid canvas of turbulent France, tracing the reach of its revolution into the most remote parts of Europe. Her portrait of the Swedish King Gustavus and her account of events leading to his assassination are nothing short of spellbinding.
Eventually, after the radiant “Madame Deficit” is guillotined, her head thrust on a pike for all Paris to see, Axel goes on to live 17 more years in Stockholm as a pooh-bah and unrepentant voluptuary. Detached, sexually insatiable, too ostentatious for his own good, he will not be spared his own violent end.
If you liked Antonia Fraser’s “Marie Antoinette” or Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” — if you admired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s close lens in “The General in His Labyrinth” — you will be richly rewarded by du Plessix Gray’s amalgam of history and drama. Read it for its insights on Versailles; read it for its eye-opening glimpses into an equally venal Stockholm. But read it, when all is said and done, for its heartbreakingly wistful romance.
Arana is author of the novels “Cellophane” and “Lima Nights.” Her biography of Simon Bolivar will be published in 2013.
THE QUEEN’S LOVER
By Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press. 292 pp. $25.95