Madame Royale, a novel by Elena Maria Vidal

Madame_Royale_cover

Madame Royale, by Elena Maria Vidal

The French Restoration (1814-1830) is an era woefully neglected by historical novelists. Fortunately, Elena Maria Vidal helps fill this void with her Madame Royale.

Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de France, Duchesse d’Angoulême, was the eldest child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and later the last Queen of France, albeit for a few minutes, until her husband’s abdication on a fateful day of July 1830. For most of her life, she was known simply as Madame Royale.

Vidal gives us a gripping portrait of a woman whose personal destiny is enmeshed with the convulsions of the French Revolution and European history. In the novel, we first meet Thérèse, as we will simply call her, in her English exile, presiding over the shabby court of her uncle, King Louis XVIII. There I must admit to being prejudiced: the setting of the beginning of Vidal’s novel is exactly the same as that of the conclusion of my own Mistress of the Revolution: Hartwell House, an estate in the English countryside. I had not read Madame Royale when I wrote my own novel, and was startled by the coincidence.

The point of view of the novel is that of Thérèse, which is to say informed by her royalist conviction and deeply held Catholic faith. A lesser novelist might have been carried away by her identification with her heroine, and tempted to give us a hagiographic description of the royal family and its supporters. But here we get to see historical characters, flaws and all. We meet King Louis XVIII, who “did not like to discuss conspiracies, since he himself had been involved in so many.” True enough, Louis XVI had no more determined and dangerous enemy than this all too clever brother.

We also meet his Queen, Marie-Josephine de Savoie, no less an enemy to Marie-Antoinette in the glory of her past Versailles days, now a pathetic alcoholic, blurting out inconvenient truths in front of her husband and courtiers, and yet touched by the grace of contrition at the very end of her life. And Vidal’s description of the Comte d’Artois, later King Charles X, is equally accurate: an aging dandy of great intellectual mediocrity, whom even the ordeals of the Revolution could not turn into a statesman.

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Louis XVIII and the royal family

Thérèse alone lends dignity, and legitimacy, to these surviving Bourbons. Her allegiance to her uncle Louis XVIII silences those who raise questions about the fate of her brother, who may, or may not, have died in the grim embrace of the Temple prison. But this does not quell the demands of her conscience nor her the longings of her heart. She is racked by doubt and never abandons her quest for her lost brother.

We see Thérèse from the inside, and also as her contemporaries perceived her: a handsome, majestic woman, but also one whose demeanor is outwardly aloof, whose voice is hoarse and croaky, maybe from her long silence during her years at the Temple.

Some passages in the novel make an unforgettable impression, in particular Thérèse’s meeting with Jeanne Simon, the widow of the cobbler Simon, who had been appointed “tutor” to Louis XVII at the Temple. One could have expected a hateful description of the old lady, but Vidal, in addition to doing impeccable research, never lets us forget that revolutionaries too are human. In Mère Simon, she shows us an outwardly harsh, but uncannily perceptive woman.  She and Thérèse, across the chasm that sets them apart, are united by their love of the lost child.

There are other highlights, in particular Thérèse’s almost nightmarish return to Versailles after the Restoration, when she finds the ghosts of her loved ones haunting the gilded palace of her childhood.

The novel is a work of utmost subtlety, a quality that is nowhere more apparent than in the evocation of Thérèse’s union to her cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême, heir to the throne. Like every marriage, this one is a mystery to outsiders, but we feel Thérèse’s ongoing struggle to breathe life and love into it. Readers looking for romance or lurid bedroom scenes will be disappointed, but I found the complexity of the couple’s relationship entrancing.

“The heart of the novel is the mystery of suffering; not the dramatic agony of martyrdom and death, but the long travail of years amid duties and disappointments, the suffering of living,” writes Elena Maria Vidal. There is no better description of the book.

Caminade-Duchesse-d-Angouleme

Duchesse d'Angouleme, by Caminade

And stay tuned: I will have the privilege of interviewing the authoress shortly. For further reading on Madame Royale, I refer you to her Memoir (here and here, in English translation.) The great novel of the French Restoration is, of course, Stendhal’s masterpiece, The Red and the Black. For recent historical fiction, I recommend Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower.

FTC Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Madame Royale.

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20 Comments to “Madame Royale, a novel by Elena Maria Vidal”

  1. […] Welcome, Elena, and thank you for kindly agreeing to discuss your book, Madame Royale, for our readers. The novel begins during Madame Royale’s exile in England. This works very well […]

  2. Yes, Penny, that must be true faith– willing to let God guide you while you wear a blindfold!

  3. Penny says:

    Catherine, I think her faith and her self doubts(must write post for ECW)make her more real to me because she does not actually know what G-d wants from her and so she has to pray for guidance, I am thinking of the Bordeaux retreat. Oh and that taught me that the region was not unanimously for the King but divided. I liked her strengh after her prayer which helped inform her decisions from there to her escape from the region etc.

  4. Penny says:

    Oh and hope to find her brother, she always seem to have that until the end of her life but it is good to have hope for something better or to make something better of life. I also liked her loyalty to her husband who in the book does not seem to sleep with her or show much affection as a spouse. as her aunt said not a real man in that sense. But she would not abandon him even though I suspect she could have gotten an annulment from the pope but stayed true to her husband. Probably because they did have a wedding and her parents had approved from the time of her childhood and she could not give up those memories. and he was not a bad man, he comes out rather endearing in the book. Oh and brave.

  5. Yes, Penny, and what I like about Therese’s faith is that it’s not self-righteous. She doubts herself, questions her own actions.

  6. Penny says:

    So true Genevieve. Madame Royale finds her way through religion and never forsakes it but I wonder about others.

  7. I was especially moved by the last paragraph of your review, “The heart of the novel is the mystery of suffering…” The sentence of life lived among the ashes, not the early execution or exit..how to live a life worth living in the shadow of so much suffering–is a profound meditation for a novel. This draws me to it. As Elissa says, I look forward to reading for pleasure again…although I think for those of us who have researched, there is pleasure in it, even when the back aches for the arduousness of it.

  8. Pennfy says:

    I just ordered the stendhal history but it will be awhile before I get to French history again. once again, great post.

  9. Penny says:

    I just want to add I enjoyed the blog posting. I think she had so many problems because of the revolution and experiencing the rage of the people. I look forward to the interview.

  10. Penny says:

    I ordered the book and will let you know what i think. I know less about the restoration than the bio of Louis XVI. Perhaps you can also do one on him as you go on. oh and one one the switch to democracy.

  11. Elisa says:

    I read this while in library school. (Got it through interlibrary loan from the campus library) It was a wonderful read. I agree, the years following the Bourbon Restoration are overlooked.

  12. Kate Warren says:

    Sounds like a fantastic read.

    I recently finished “Marie Antoinette” by Antonia Fraser and I’m eager to learn more about this period in French history. I will be adding “Madame Royale” to my list.

  13. Many thanks to you, Elena, for giving me the opportunity to review your beautiful novel.
    And Elissa, I hope you get that well-deserved helping of French-themed histfic soon!

  14. Elissa Shaw says:

    When I finally am able to read for pleasure again I want you to know that I’m adding your books and Vidal’s to my library. Thanks for the post; it gives me a snippet of the history I’ve been missing for quite a while now. Like a morsel of chocolate, just enough to satisfy my sweet tooth!

  15. Thank you very much for the insightful review which means a great deal to me coming from you, Catherine! The illustrations for this post are wonderful!

  16. Oh, I really enjoyed it, Ellen! I read it months ago, and for personal reasons could not write this review earlier, but this book has “stayed” with me.

  17. ellen moody says:

    You make it sound very interesting and good. Ellen

  18. Thanks, Matterhorn, I had fun picking the illustrations (as usual…) The visit to Mère Simon is one passage of the novel that sticks in your memory, isn’t it?

  19. Matterhorn says:

    What a wonderful review, and beautiful illustrations. I loved this novel!

    I especially like your point about Marie-Thérèse and Mère Simon being united in an odd way- I had never thought of that before.

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