- - Friday, August 3, 2012

By Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press, $25.95
289 pages

There’s no question but that he was handsome, to wit “his majestic stature and the elegance of his long, slender limbs. His auburn hair was thick and wavy, he had a high, oval forehead, a beautifully shaped mouth, and the gaze of his very large, dark brown eyes had a melancholy which women found entrancing.” Count Axel von Fersen, the womanizing Swedish nobleman, is the central character of Francine du Plessix Gray’s new novel, “The Queen’s Lover.” He was the love of Queen Marie Antoinette’s life (and she of his), but he may or may not have been her lover. History is not clear on that issue.

The premise of Miss Gray’s novel, however, is that the love between queen and count was, in fact, consummated. The Austrian princess was 14 when she married the dauphin of France. She was 18 when she met Count Fersen, just two months her senior, at a masked ball in Paris. He was immediately delighted by the pretty, graceful young woman, as she was by his wit and charm.

The story is told in the first person through the memoir of Count Fersen, with occasional inserts by his younger sister, Sophie. It’s a device with advantages and disadvantages. The chief advantage is that the reader is introduced to Axel von Fersen’s persona with an intimate glimpse into his heart. He is proud, self-confident, arrogant and loyal to his “dear friend,” King Gustavus III, as well as to the king and queen of France. He lives a life of privilege and luxury.

The disadvantage is a somewhat stilted tone and a one-sided view of the other principal characters.

The Queen’s Lover” starts slowly, beginning with that meeting at the masked ball. Axel belongs to one of Sweden’s most noble families. The Swedish court was much different from the French, and he is shocked with what he encounters at Versailles, a palace that could “accommodate five thousand persons! … [T]he site is a monstrosity, a large murky swamp that, however diligently the authorities dredged it, continued to emit a fetid stench and breed an infestation of insects — few were the court beauties whose white throats were not spotted with red pustules from their bites. What was indeed most striking was the discrepancy between the gleaming gilded grandeur of the palace’s outer surface and the filthy, insalubrious conditions that prevailed inside it.

“Many courtiers as well as visitors (the French populace had full right of entry to the palace as long as they kept away from the royal apartments) had a habit of snacking as they ambled through Versailles — a lamb chop here, an apple or pastry there — and bits of food could be found scattered throughout hundreds of rooms: in the upholstery, under the edge of carpets, in the bottom folds of curtains … Versailles habitues were constantly wheezing, coughing, aggravating the dire conditions created by the vagrant barefoot children, prostitutes, and inebriated courtiers who [relieved themselves] in corners of the grand galleries.”

Von Fersen greatly admires Louis XVI, describing him as a “scholar, one of the best-read men of his day, [who] would have been quite as happy studying books around the clock as he was repairing roofs alongside his subjects.” The king was a kind man with simple tastes; “he loved hunting and other physical occupations such as welding and blacksmithing, and specialized in the making of keys.”

The count distinguished himself as a soldier in the American War of Independence where he fought under Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau. He traveled through Europe as an aide to Sweden’s King Gustavus III, and spent as much time as he could as Gustavus’ emissary in Paris. He was instrumental in arranging the attempted flight of the French royal family that ended in disaster in Varennes. He amassed military and civilian honors and titles, ending as grand marshal of the kingdom of Sweden.

After the death of the queen, Axel spends many years as a diplomat and serves his country in high offices in Sweden. He never marries, ostensibly because he cannot have his one true love. But undying love for the queen of France does not interfere with his liaisons with the Italian adventuress Eleanore Sullivan, Spanish beauty Marianne La Grua and Russian Princess Yekaterina Nikolaevna Menshikova, “as small and as delicately modeled as a Meissen figurine,” among many others.

The novel takes on an inherent excitement, beginning with the details leading up to the attempt of the royal family to flee, until the execution of the queen, a death she faced with great calm and dignity. Axel is not with her throughout her imprisonment and trial, but never ceases to try to free her. Sophie describes Marie Antoinette as having three separate personae: “The first was the flighty, capricious girl called ‘Featherhead’ by her own brother; the second was the woman who, especially after the Varennes debacle, became impassioned with European politics, and attempted to play a role in them as conscientiously as she could; and last, there was the bereaved imprisoned widow, ‘La Veuve Capet’ as those barbaric revolutionaries called her … .”

But true to its title, the novel is about Axel and not his Toinette. His diary and letters discuss his military exploits, his diplomatic career, his life of luxury back in Stockholm with his sister, Sophie, his services to the kings of Sweden, his mistresses, his many distinguished titles and honors. Yet, “notwithstanding all [the] honors, accolades, loyalties, [he] felt empty, utterly empty … with no purpose in mind beyond continuing to live an existence that [he] felt would grow increasingly vacuous, seeing that [he] was vain, self-centered, and morose.”

Axel von Fersen’s dreadful end was even more brutal than that of Marie Antoinette: He was beaten and stomped to death by the mob as he rode in elegant splendor in the cortege of the deceased heir to the throne of Sweden, whom he had been accused of poisoning.

Miss Gray has done her research and “The Queen’s Lover” is not only entertaining, but also an informative book portraying 18th-century life of the rich and famous, including details of the events swirling around the French Revolution and its effects elsewhere in Europe. Whether the love of the queen and her count was platonic or consummated is irrelevant to the times in which they lived and died.

• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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