In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, author Will Bashor offers the reader a gripping narrative history, unremitting in its gaze on the horrors of imprisonment and the mockery of justice that was the Revolutionary tribunal in the years of the Reign of Terror, principally 1793-1794. This is a book about the revenge exacted by the winners against the losers, a phenomenon which, in Marie Antoinette’s case, magnified and distorted her acknowledged faults, laying the whole burden of the nation’s anger upon her shoulders. She carried this burden with a dignity that would have surprised and confounded her detractors. Bashor’s clearly stated objective is to be nonjudgmental, but his moving account of the facts of the former queen’s 76 days in the Conciergerie, along with the extracts from her interrogations and trial, cannot help but draw the reader in, exciting compassion for the “Widow Capet” and her unfortunate children.
Bashor’s book provides a clear Chronology to accompany his narrative, which helps to orient the reader toward the complex sequence of events that engulfed Marie Antoinette. After the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution, the royal family continued to live at Versailles until October when revolutionary forces brought them back to Paris. King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, their children Louis Charles and Marie-Thérèse, and the king’s sister Élisabeth were among those who attempted to escape the country in June 1791 with help from supporters who arranged their transport and disguises as bourgeois citizens. This “flight to Varennes” ended the next day when the royal family was arrested at Varennes (near Verdun) near the border of France with the Austrian Netherlands (present day Belgium).
They were brought back to Paris and kept under guard at the Tuileries palace. By August 1792, all concessions and attempts to stay in power having failed, the king was overthrown, ending the monarchy, and the family fled to the Assembly building but they were apprehended and imprisoned in the Temple, where their daily existence, though not lavish, was relatively comfortable. By December, however, Louis XVI was tried for treason, and a month later, he was convicted and guillotined on January 21, 1793.
In a state of profound grief and anxiety, Louis’s family remained at the Temple prison. It was said that they treated 8-year-old Louis Charles as if he were now Louis XVII, placing him at the head of the table during their meals, and deferring to him in other ways. This aroused anger and fear of the monarchy returning. In July 1793 the child was taken from his mother and confined to a separate cell in the Temple, in solitary confinement for the greater part of the next two years until his death in June of 1795 (age 10 years) of disease and deliberate neglect. I found this the most horrifying passage in the book, as it detailed what he endured:
The true heir to the throne of France perhaps suffered the most during the social convulsions of the French Revolution. During his fifteen months of solitary confinement in the Temple, his food was pushed through an opening in the cell door: ‘No one entered the cell; it was never aired or cleaned, and nothing was ever removed from it. His bedding was never changed during all this time, nor was his person cared for in any manner!’
The cell was overrun with rats and mice attracted by decaying food and human waste. The scabies-infected child also became prey to insects before dying. (pp. 265-266)
During his imprisonment, he would also be plied with liquor, beaten and induced to falsely testify that he was the victim of incest from his mother and aunt. Shocked by these accusations, during her own trial Marie Antoinette rose to her feet to deny them, appealing to “the hearts of all mothers” in the courtroom.
But I am getting ahead of the story. It is difficult not to view the suspenseful tale of imprisonment and trial, which Bashor deftly spins out in historical order, from the hindsight perspective, as we all know that Marie Antoinette will be guillotined. Yet, while the book gains impetus and drama from this knowledge, the fascinating detail and sureness of the narrative carried me along with page-turning rapidity.
Shortly after being separated from her son, Marie Antoinette herself was moved to the Conciergerie prison, where she would spend two and a half months. Her time there is the meat of Bashor’s account, since it is less well known and much less written about than other aspects of her life. While her confinement at the Conciergerie cannot compare in brutality to what her son suffered (unbeknownst to her), the conditions of this prison were certainly much worse for her than at the Temple. Her cells (she was moved once) were damp and dungeonlike, cold, dirty, and lacking in privacy or comfort. She was ill and weak most of the time and hemorrhaged from the uterus. Her wardens attempted to bring her palatable food and water, and they would ultimately suffer for this considerate behavior toward her.
In fact, chapter 4, “Kindhearted Souls,” was one of the most interesting to me, for the specific incidents of compassion it described. There was a servant named Rosalie who agreed to attend the queen at considerable sacrifice to her own comfort. Another woman, a Mademoiselle Fouché, visited Marie, attempting to console her. At first, Marie was wary of her, unsure of whether she could be trusted, but when the lady offered to find her an “unsworn” priest–that is, a priest who had not sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic–her reaction “was immediate and profound. The queen threw herself into Mademoiselle Fouché’s arms and embraced her tenderly” (p. 56). Such a priest would have to hear Marie’s confession and offer her the sacraments secretly. The lady was as good as her word and returned with a priest on several occasions. The warden’s acquiescence to these visits also showed his mercy toward the former queen.
One visitor caused Marie Antoinette great trouble, which became known as the “Carnation Plot.” The chevalier de Rougeville visited her on August 28, 1793 and dropped a carnation containing a small folded note between its petals suggesting that there were those who were ready and able to effect her escape. Her efforts to reply to this note would be a recurring bone of contention. At first she denied noticing the carnation or even recognizing Rougeville as someone known to her from the royal court. Eventually, she would acknowledge some of the facts but never any part in a plot. Moreover, after her husband’s execution, she had vigorously declined any efforts to free her personally, since she refused to leave her children. However, the Carnation Plot angered her captors and swayed public opinion against her.
At this point, one must ask: Why did the Revolutionary leaders keep her alive for so long? Why wasn’t she executed along with her husband? Surrounding countries had declared war on France once the Revolution began. As Bashor explains, she was treated as a hostage, an important foreign captive who could perhaps be exchanged with the belligerent Austrian government in exchange for peace. Recall that she came to France at age 14 as an Austrian princess, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, and it was a dynastic marriage. Her acceptance as a foreign queen had long been tenuous. During the Terror, her foreign connections easily lent themselves to charges of disloyalty and outright conspiracy. Bashor gives an intriguing account of the evidence for any conspiracy with foreign powers, most of which did not come to light until centuries later, and could not have served as material evidence in her trial.
Although her position as a hostage made exchange possible, the tide of public opinion went against her and within the government itself, calls for her trial and execution increased. One prominent citizen who suggested she be exiled back to Austria soon found himself in the Conciergerie, denounced as well. In the popular press, she was called an “ogress,” a “murderess,” a “tigress”–and worse obscenities–as garish cartoons appeared depicting her as the dragonish beast they imagined. The feverish demand for her head increased. Her trial began on October 14, 1793 with a guilty verdict, sentence, and execution only two days later, on October 16.
Bashor reproduces the back-and-forth testimony of witnesses and Marie herself with the prosecutors in excerpts that read like a steady march toward injustice. Her two appointed counsels were themselves arrested after the trial, but later released. They defended her bravely, but didn’t dare speak out against her sentence.
This book is a fine achievement indeed, enhanced with a large number of period illustrations, many of them original lithographs from La dernière année de Marie-Antoinette published in 1907. Marie Antoinette’s time in the Conciergerie, her interrogations and trial, her last hours, the way she went to the guillotine, and the story of her final resting place all make for indispensable reading for anyone curious about the true end of this remarkably controversial woman, who has left an indelible stamp on the history of France.
Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days:
Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie
(history – nonfiction)
Release date: December 1, 2016
at Rowman & Littlefield
This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.
Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning
Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie, was released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy,
Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.
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