History, for me, is best understood in manageable nuggets. I keep targeting the French revolution because of the convergence of so many ideas: the roles of church, state, kings, budgets, freedom, violence, revenge. I can’t imagine I’ll ever understand it, or why it flowed quite the way it did, but I keep looking and reading and trying. There’s irony that the country that funded American freedom from England would find itself so broke that rebellious sparks would catch flame. It’s confusing to me that the place that supported construction of so many glorious churches would kill God’s defenders—Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI—and turn houses of worship, like Mont Saint-Michel, into prisons. I definitely sense some anger. I wonder what the Church’s take on that time period really is.
Over the years, I’ve turned to different sources to learn about the French revolution. Most recently, I plowed through Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel (Bloomsbury 2008) for an explanation of what happened afterward.
There was so much rage that people’s heads were thrust upon stakes and paraded past the windows of Versailles. For the children of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the French revolution didn’t end with the beheading of their parents. The young Louis Charles, born just four years before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, ended up being tortured to death in the Temple Prison. Whether there’s any collective guilt by the people of France for terrorizing a child simply because of his succession rights remains to be seen.
Marie-Thérèse, daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, was the only member of the immediate family to survive the Temple Prison. Like her parents, she firmly believed in the divine right of kings to rule, although her interpretation of what happened to her parents and to France in the wake of the revolution leaves me puzzled. In her mind, God bestows sovereignty, but people can take it away. She emerged from the prison into a world where people began to bestow sovereignty, sort of. Her world had turned upside down, but she spent a great deal of her life trying to right it, by marrying a Bourbon cousin and dedicating herself to efforts to restore the monarchy. She always seemed to think the people of France did her parents wrong, never that Maman et Papa may have been fallible.
I’d forgotten the long-lasting tumult in France, through the reigns of Napoleon, the return of the Bourbons to power after years in exile in various countries, the cousinly relations among many of the rulers of that time period. Nagel’s history mixes historical developments and a recounting of humanizing details that time has forgotten about those dethroned French rulers. Most amusing to me was how Marie Antoinette and her own mother, the Empress of Austria, had their own code for the monthly return of “Aunt Flo”: they wrote of a visit from General Krottendorf. In subtle ways, those rulers were people like us. In more overt ones, they never really grasped how severely their world was changing, or how quickly. Nagel’s work captures their confusion, and those of those times, in a well-researched and interesting read.