Queen’s Confession, Victoria Holt, 1967

The Queen Has Been Slain

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Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the last queen of France during the country’s ancien régime. Alongside Elisabeth I of England she is probably the most featured queen in books and films. In her take Victoria Holt, a prolific British writer of historical novels, attempts deeper and more personal approach to the tragic queen through actual letters that Marie Antoinette wrote, mainly to her mother Maria Teresia, the empress of Austria. The letters don’t offer much insight, though, due to their vapidity. One reads:

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Your Majesty is very kind to express her interest towards me, even so that She wants to know how I spend my days in Versailles. Because of that, I tell Her that I rise at ten or nine o’clock and after I have been dressed I say my morning prayer. Then I have my breakfast and go to my aunts and usually I also meet the King. Then it is half past ten. My hair is combed. At noon the doors are opened and all persons noble enough may come in. I put rouge to my cheeks and wash my hands. At noon, I go to mass with the King, if he is in Versailles, and Dauphin. Then we eat lunch that last until half past one. Then I go to see Dauphin. If he has work, I return to my own rooms. I read, write and sew a vest to the King. It progresses slowly but I believe that with the help from Almighty it shall be finished in a few years time…

According to Queen’s Confession, Marie Antoinette led outwardly fabulous but emotionally empty life in her lukewarm marriage with Louis XVI of France. In popular culture she is portrayed either a hapless victim of circumstances or an ultra vain and careless spendrift. Victoria Holt stands in a middle; she clearly brings front Marie Antoinette’s excesses, especially her dreamland Little Trianon, but presents her as a generally kind-hearted although intellectually mediocre woman who was woefully out of her depth as monarch and immensely helpless to overcome the complex political schemes and machinations which eventually took her to the gallows. Or the massive hate campaign against her, which enables juxtapositions to modern life as she could be likened to social media hate figures of nowadays.

Holt is not at her best at describing this intrigue as it materializes mainly as petty court gossiping and eavesdropping servants. Also Marie Antoinette’s real life romance to count Axel Von Fersen does not rise above your average Harlequin read. What I found frustrating is that once again Louis XVI is simply portrayed as a wimbster who let his throne slip through his fingers and his family laid to waste. There is another book by French writer Juliette Benzoni, Un Collier Pour Diablo, which concentraces to Diamond Necklace Affair and provides fuller picture of him.

Queen’s Confession is however a very strong reading experience, told as a flashback from already imprisoned Marie Antoinette’s point of view, full of sadness and regret, describing a materially lavish lifestyle with a sense of imminent doom hanging over it like a distant thunder. The book gets almost disturbing when it gets closer to its end and harrowing details of the Bourbon family’s imprisonment. This is why I cannot full-heartedly recommend this to those who get easily upset.

Wideacre, Philippa Gregory, 1987

Mansion Monster

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Wideacre is a dark, twisted and uncompromising tale of grand estate life back in 18th century Sussex, England. The debut novel by Philippa Gregory, acclaimed British writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, was first published 30 years ago and has since become sort of cult favorite among literary fans, there has also been lingering rumors and demand for a movie version throughout the years.

Wideacre is a fictional mansion in the English countryside that includes a vast area of land, green fields, forests, meadows and a village called Acre where everyone lives as tenants of Sir Harold Lacey, the lord of Wideacre. The heroine of the book, if you can call her such, is Sir Harold’s eldest and only daughter, beautiful and spirited Miss Beatrice Lacey, favoured child of her father who taught her to ride in age of four and throughout the years she grew up to be a brisk outdoors woman and valuable help for her father in matters of farming and forestry.

However, soon enough Beatrice realizes being in a receiving end of destiny’s cruel joke. Despite being first born child and much more worthy and capable heir than her weak younger brother Harry, as a woman she can never inherit and run Wideacre, that is enforced by the law. Beatrice can only expect an arranged marriage somewhere far away from the land she loves so passionately but she decides to defy the law and the destiny.

This sounds like a commendable effort of a woman seeking her lawful rights in a time that would likely have suffragettes hang in public but it is something quite different. For Beatrice, the end justifies any means and I do mean ANY. She stoops into fraud, adultery, being grossly indifferent to people of Acre, murder, accessory to murder and perhaps most notoriously, incest. And she almost wins, however it is a Pyrrhic victory as during the process she has sullied and ruined everything she held dear at first place.

The immense unlikeableness of Beatrice is both the strength and weakness of Widecare, she certainly makes a memorable main character but distracts the reader from enjoying this well written and researched novel because one is too eager to see Beatrice getting her comeuppance. Despite the lurid aspects, I still recommend this to anyone with interest and fondness for English mansions and life in them as Wideacre tells and describes the everyday life and work in mansions and what role these places played in economy and society at the time. This is the first part of a trilogy and I have never read the second and third book, Favoured Child and Meridon but apparently, Beatrice’s wicked witchery proved ongoing.