4 out of 4 stars
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Being from America, my history teachers never lectured about the French Revolution much. If you asked me who were the participants in it, I would answer Marie Antoinette and quote "let them eat cake." In my limited knowledge of Antoinette, I pegged her as a narcissistic airhead, oblivious to her people's plight. While her subjects were starving, she was having parties and wearing stylish dresses. My understanding of the French ruler has changed, however, from a narrow viewpoint to a realization that her story is more complicated. Antoinette became not merely a hapless royal but also a woman who loved her husband, cared deeply for her children, and was a devout Christian.
I owe this mental shift to Will Bashor's book titled Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days. Bashor brings to life the queen's last months in prison and outlines the many failed plots to save her. When Marie Antoinette became a detainee, she was no longer called a queen but referred to as widow Capet or Prisoner No. 280. She languished in her damp, mice-ridden cell for two-and-a-half months before being convicted. The author shows transcripts from her trial detailing what the allegations were against her; ranging from treason to the more shocking and absurd, intending to get her to the guillotine. Tragically the royal children suffered in the wake of the Revolution as well. Eight-year-old Louis Charles was put into solitary confinement for fifteen months without the means of taking a bath or his bedding changed. Reading like a novel at some points with dialogue, this book is an eye-opening and absorbing read.
As clueless as I was about the Revolution, I appreciated Bashor summarizing it and providing a family tree of Louis XVI. There are many theories on what brought about the revolt, but most agree it was due to the high cost of bread. France's involvement in the American Revolution could have also led some to consider freedom from a ruling class. The Reign of Terror is the two-year period of intense persecution, and during this time the jailors meted out the death sentence 60 to 80 times every night and day. Louis XVI himself was a feeble monarch and indecisive, causing his wife and his brothers to advise in policies for the country. Because the public perceived her as the primary person deciding, they faulted the queen for the bulk of the country's miseries. When Marie Antoinette came to Paris in 1773, the Parisians praised her for her beauty and cheered. However, by 1795 the public was roaring for her "to drink long of death" and "be chopped up like meat for pâté.”
I liked how the author used various mediums to chronicle Antoinette's death. In the book, it shows paintings someone made of the queen, documents of the trial, a diagram of the Conciergerie prison, weather reports, a poem written about the queen and a short bio of the architect of the guillotine. The author even shares multiple theories on what happened to the queen's dog. One of the most disturbing and dark tales is about a game the convicts at the Conciergerie would play to pass the time called "Guillotine." They would pretend to get sentenced and then act out themselves getting their heads lopped off.
I feel the author thoroughly researched for this book, and he notes all his sources clearly, even acknowledging when there is an inconsistency in eyewitness accounts. There were no flaws for me to pick apart. So, without further adieu, I give Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days 4 out of 4 stars. Anyone who loves history will be enamored with this work.
Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days
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