- - Tuesday, January 20, 2015



By Jonathan Beckman

Da Capo Press, $26.99, 408 pages

It was a 2,800 carat diamond necklace that many people thought was ugly and it may be that Queen Marie Antoinette never either wore it or saw it, but it made a bitterly ironic contribution to the collapse of her world and her consequent death.

In this meticulously detailed account of a scandal that became a major aspect of the French Revolution, Jonathan Beckman underscores the importance of ostensibly unlikely players in a historic drama. He writes authoritatively of how an ambitious young couple played a game that not only discredited a monarch but challenged the credibility of a cardinal and, to an astounding degree, got away with it.

It was in great part because of the controversy over this fabulously costly necklace that the queen may never have owned and that nobody liked still had the power to poison the powerful.

“Grotesque and almost literally unwearable, it more resembled an item of chain mail than a coveted piece of jewelry. It was known as a necklace of slavery,” notes the author.

There are soap opera trappings to this fantastically true story that involves kidnappings, duels, poisoned pigs, assassination attempts and the kind of vicious royal politicking that makes current political squabbles look like kindergarten spats. Marie Antoinette is central to the plot, yet in an oddly detached way. Seeking intimacy with the queen was high risk, especially when she was understandably wary of those whose loyalty was in doubt, and in those days there were few that she could trust.

The author makes a shrewd and sad point that Marie Antoinette came to exist in the records as “a spectral presence, not unlike a discreet yet omniscient schemer, conscientiously covering her tracks as she works her mischief.” He suggests that it was as a result of the ruthless fabrications of Jeanne La Motte that the image of the queen was established as an unwearying intriguer.

Certainly among those the queen never should have trusted were Jeanne and Nicolas de la Motte. Jeanne, who had some claims to an aristocratic background, established herself early in life as lacking in morals or scruples. As she is described, “Struggling since her birth with the social order she had defied the law and hardly respected morality much more. She was lacking in any kind of education but had a great deal of wit.”

It was that wit that took Jeanne far in the social system of the French court and in the end put her in the Bastille to be flogged and branded. It is difficult to underestimate the damage her dishonesty did to the queen.

A major problem with the controversial necklace was that the queen didn’t like it, and she detested the powerful Cardinal Louis Rohan who foolishly allowed himself to be literally led up garden paths by Jeanne. It was she, an alleged descendant of minor French royalty, who involved the cardinal in an elaborate and daring scheme that left Marie Antoinette accused of forgery and a participant in an unlikely scene in which she was involved in a clandestine tryst in the gardens of Versailles.

As Mr. Beckham puts it, Jeanne, who was “voluble, contentious and brash, was the antithesis of the placid unchallenging women in the circle close to Marie Antoinette.” She used forged letters to support her accounts of her intimacy with the queen, basking in sycophancy, aware of the perils surrounding her yet enjoying her role as an actress. And she completely fooled the cardinal, who in court confessed that he had been completely conned, saying, “She had me so wrapped up in her ploys that I would not dare say anything.” For her part, Jeanne repeatedly refuted accusations by referring to an “amorphous conspiracy” against her.

Yet the affair of the diamond necklace and the lies told about it had far-reaching consequences not only for those who went to trial over their involvement, but for the court of France. The publicizing of the outrageously lavish way of life fueled the anger of the people against the monarchy and especially against Marie Antoinette, who became a target. One judge suggested that it was “in the malice and lies spreading against the queen that one must look for the pretext for the accusations of the Revolutionary Tribunal.”

The accusations include the invoking of the Diamond Necklace Affair as an example of the queen’s “pitiless destruction of the agents of her criminal intrigues.”

Marie Antoinette was guillotined. Jeanne la Motte died miserably in prison, and nobody seems to know what had happened to the diamonds. The author suggests, “Somewhere, anonymously, in a Swiss safe or around a neck, reconfigured into earrings or brooches they sit, unperturbed by the anguish they caused.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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