- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008


By Susan Nagel

Bloomsbury, $27.95, 432 pages, illus.


The title of this gripping book tells it all: Marie-Therese de Bourbon, only daughter of the martyred King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, was an eye and ear witness and a victim of the French Revolution’s terror. Imprisoned with her parents and younger brother, the Dauphin, she saw Louis go off bravely to his execution and witnessed the devastation and grief that transformed her once frivolous mother into the impressive, dignified figure who would soon go to the guillotine herself.

Still in her early teens, Marie-Therese heard the torture and abuse of her hapless brother and suffered still more in knowing that her mother also had to stand by unable to help her son in his living hell as she faced her own imminent extinction.

For Marie-Therese, there would be years of imprisonment without the torture visited on her brother, but with the refinements of psychological terrorizing that we have come to associate with the 20th century’s vilest totalitarian regimes. Released on her 17th birthday (at the behest of Robespierre of all unlikely people!), two years after her mother’s execution, Marie-Therese had not known until recently if she (and the Dauphin) were alive or dead.

Not having had anyone to speak to in the years of her captivity, her voice had almost disappeared and retained harsh tones for the more than half century of life still remaining to her.

What a life it was, full of twists and turns, with Marie-Therese always subjected to conflicts, pressure, and what might have seemed at times forms of refined torture had she not seen the real thing in its hideous hydra-headedness close up. Exiled to her mother’s family, the Hapsburg Dynasty in Vienna, she found herself pulled between their plans for her and those of her paternal uncles, the future Louis XVIII and Charles X of France.

Named for her maternal grandmother, the great Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, Marie-Therese was a considerable prize for the Hapsburgs who wanted her for the wife of one of their more dynamic figures, the Archduke Karl. Deliberately misinformed by her uncles that her late father had wanted her to marry her Bourbon first cousin, the Duc d’Angouleme, her paternal devotion and her intense patriotism made her determined to turn her back on the safety of Vienna for the parlous life as an exiled member of her French family.

Through nearly two decades of exile in Russia, the Baltic, Germany, and Britain, married to a cousin less forceful and intelligent than herself, Marie-Therese was a loyal member of a court in waiting.

Then in 1814, the Bourbons actually did return to Paris in a triumph of sorts, only to be chased away once more into ignominious exile by Napoleon’s return from Elba. But before she joined the members of her family, including the King, who had fled, Marie-Therese distinguished herself by behaving with a bravery and resolution, rallying the royalist forces in Bordeaux:

“When apprized of his niece’s actions, King Louis XVII, now in Ghent, compared her to Marguerite d’Anjou, the fifteenth century princess of Lorraine, who married King Henry VI of England and led the Lancastrian troops on her husband’s behalf in the War of the Roses. At the Tuileries, an awestruck Napoleon said of the Duchesse d’Angouleme: ‘She is the only man in the family!’ ”

Many people believed that, had the Bourbons followed the lead of the Hapsburgs in abandoning the Salic law which kept women from ruling, Marie-Therese might have made as wise and pragmatic an empress as her namesake grandmother, with a happier fate for the French dynasty than befell them in the 15 years of rule that remained to them after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Famously, it was the Bourbons’ attitude of having forgotten nothing and learned nothing that made their second act between 1815 and 1830 such a disaster. History’s conventional view of Marie-Therese has been that she typified this stiff-necked attitude. Perhaps the greatest virtue of this biography is to reveal her as someone infinitely more complex.

Based on prodigious research, and bolstered by telling quotes from primary and secondary sources, this portrait of Marie Therese shows someone who was indeed shaped and formed how could she not have been? by her terrible Revolutionary experiences. But she had absorbed some of the wisdom shown by her father, a considerable improvement on his two predecessors, for whose hubris he paid the ultimate price. If she could not forget, she knew how to forgive up sometimes and to bend when wisdom or necessity demanded it.

What must it have been like for Marie-Therese to return to Paris, the scene of her gilded youth and her torment? This biography explores this and so much else about her with sensitivity, providing new insights into a misunderstood and tragic figure and showing us the real human buffeted by all those historical crosscurrents.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide