"Before long, they were driving through the black, golden-tipped gate of the Little Trianon. The carriages were reined in in front of the classical simple, square house, brownish-beige in color, with large, rectangular windows, a flat roof, and welcoming verandas on either side. It was so plain and simple compared to Versailles, but to Thérèse it was home. The footmen, who had been standing at the back of the carriages, helped them to dismount. The Queen climbed out first. She wore a white muslin dress and wide-brimmed straw hat with single ostrich plume and a gauzy veil. There was an exquisite portrait of Mamam by Madame Vigée-Lebrun in just such a costume. Maman had shed tears over it, because people had not liked it."
- From the novel Trianon by Elena Maria Vidal
Over the next few weeks, there will be a series on the work of the American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, beginning with this review of her first novel, Trianon, based on the final years of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Recently re-issued, a new edition of its sequel, Madame Royale, is due out very soon and I was beyond honoured to be asked to write an endorsement for it - so there will be more news on that! There will also be an interview with Elena Maria Vidal, herself, and an article on the society beauty, Gabrielle de Polignac, comparing her presentation in Miss Vidal's novel, my play The Audacity of Ideas, Sofia Coppola's movie Marie Antoinette and Chantal Thomas's novel Les Adieux à la reine. There will be a discussion on Miss Vidal's latest novel, The Night's Dark Shade, and an excerpt from my thesis about the portrayals of Marie-Antoinette in cinema. On Miss Vidal's superb blog, there is already (very kindly) an excerpt from my thesis, in which Trianon was discussed when I was researching the posthumous reputation of Marie-Antoinette. It was my pleasure to review this novel and I hope the events over the next few weeks will keep people entertained!
Nothing happens in Elena Maria Vidal's novel Trianon. In much the same way as nothing really happens in Michael Cunningham's The Hours. Yes, Marie-Antoinette is executed, in the same way as Virginia Woolf drowns herself at the beginning of The Hours, but "real drama" (whatever that is) never seems to happen. It's all internal - it's the story of people, rather than events.
Beginning in 1787, the year historians date as the beginning of the period in French history known as "the pre-Revolution," and ending in 1795, with an epilogue set in the Russian Empire twelve years later, Trianon's story starts after the glory days of Versailles are long over. Marie-Antoinette is no longer the vivacious teenage empress of high society, but rather a graceful and mature thirty-something with a growing family and a struggling husband. The flash of jewels, the swish of silk, the intoxicating aroma of heavy perfumes and the ceaseless rustle of delicious gossip over candlelit banquets, are a thing of the past. We do not see the towering hairstyles, the glistening fabrics, the enormous gowns and the all-night parties. And yet neither do we see what some amateur historians fancifully imagine to be their corollary - the violent purges of the Revolution. The summoning of the Estates-General, Bastille Day, the siege of the palace, the flight to Varennes, the downfall of the monarchy, the September Massacres, even the actual execution of Marie-Antoinette, all happen "off-stage," as it were. And that is because Trianon is not really about the glory of the ancien régime or the trauma of the Revolution, but rather it is about the agony and the ecstasy of living in such times. Above all, it is the story of a married couple - Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette - who, to quote the author in her Preface, endured "crushing disappointments, innumerable humiliations, personal and national tragedy, and death itself." And yet, despite this rather grim statement of purpose, Trianon emerges as a rather lovely and uplifting novel, despite the heartache, because, as Elena Maria Vidal so beautifully reminds us: "It is necessary to remember that the darkness of the night makes the stars shine with an ever greater resplendence."
Trianon begins with the famous court artist, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, painting a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, in the crisp autumn of 1787. The Queen of France is approaching her 32nd birthday and Madame Vigée-Lebrun has already painted Her Majesty's portrait several times before. Yet, each time, she is dissatisfied with the result - the artist, that is, not the subject. Madame Vigée-Lebrun, generally considered the finest portraitist of her generation, is frustrated with herself because "her previous attempts at reproducing on canvas the most radiant skin in all Europe, perhaps in the world, had fallen far short of her own high standards".
I loved the opening to this novel, if for no other reason than the fact that, to me, it seemed as if it's a rather lovely moment of self-portrait. Madame Vigée-Lebrun may as well be Elena Maria Vidal - having once been under the impression that the beautiful young queen was a frivolous, if charming, self-obsessive, Madame has now been exposed to her enough to have an entirely different opinion of her character. She sees her as kind, gracious, elegant, gentle, completely devoted to her children and - in short - a true lady. She is utterly feminine. And it is this high regard in which she holds Marie-Antoinette that makes Madame Vigée-Lebrun so keen to produce a believable portrait of her. Like her character, one senses that Elena Maria Vidal, having spent years researching the true personality of Marie-Antoinette, was determined to render a different kind of portrait of her, but one which captured the radiance that both she, and Madame Vigée-Lebrun, felt had been Marie-Antoinette's in abundance.
This delight in the minutiae of the period and her zeal to show Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette - and their family and acquaintances - as she believes them to have been in reality does lead to the occasional problem. True life anecdotes like Marie-Antoinette getting down on the ground to pick up dropped paintbrushes, rather than allow a pregnant servant to do it, are seamlessly (and beautifully) woven into the narrative, but at times, Miss Vidal's incredible levels of research can become too much. Anecdotes showing Louis XVI's deep commitment to his subjects' welfare or Marie-Antoinette's generosity to charity are occasionally described by characters in a way which jars with their usual speech pattern. In short, it becomes a little too didactic. It's particularly a problem in some of the early speeches given by the King's younger sister, Princess Elisabeth. Perhaps these flies in the ointment are, however, only noticeable because when Miss Vidal is giving full freedom to her imagination, the result is beautiful - her physical description of the King standing on the porch of his wife's weekend retreat at the Little Trianon in Chapter Four was one of my favourite parts of the novel, perhaps because it felt so natural and so intimate. Equally, the Mass seen from the point-of-view of the royal couple's eldest daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse, was delightful.
Trianon wonderfully recreates the atmosphere of the final years of Versailles, a curiously enchanted and graceful world of linen gowns, straw hats and quiet garden parties. Without showing its violence, it also conjures up the full, terrifying reality of having to live through something like the French Revolution. Fear, in this novel, seems airborne - less of a psychological state and more of a physical reality. Marie-Antoinette's trial in particular is an unforgettable moment in the novel, if for all the wrong reasons, for it brings home the unfathomable cruelty with which she was treated and it is no wonder that in interviews, Elena Maria Vidal has spoken of how upsetting it was to research the horrific child abuse the revolutionary jailers inflicted upon the Queen's nine year-old son.
Filled with dozens of minor, but factual, characters, who ordinarily don't attract a novelist's attention, the characterisations of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Princess Louise, the King's aging aunt (living as a nun in a Carmelite convent at the time of the novel's beginning) and that of Father Henry Edgworth, the King's Irish confessor, are particular highlights. The centre of this novel, however, and its highlight, is its portrayal of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. There is a moment, shortly before his execution, when the King is utterly moved by the loyalty shown to him by his priest. Beginning to weep at such unexpected kindness, after four years of degrading cruelty, the King remarks, "For a long time I have been among my enemies, and habit has accustomed me to them. But when I behold a faithful subject, it is to me a new sight! A different language speaks to my heart, and in spite of my utmost efforts, I am melted." In literature as in life, one is tempted to say. Far more so even than Marie-Antoinette, who is regularly presented as a spoiled bimbo, Louis XVI has not had a good press. The most generous assessment is to suggest he had a good heart but a poor brain and an even weaker backbone. I should know, because I have perhaps been guilty of this to an extent, through the way in which I presented him in my play, The Audacity of Ideas. At times, as an historian, I was not always convinced by Elena Maria Vidal's interpretation of some of Louis XVI's actions, but as a reader, I was deeply moved and, perhaps, it is time we started erring on the side of charity, rather than cynicism. In its presentation of his deep patriotism, his love for his people, his genuine desire to reform and improve France, his astonishing physical and mental bravery, and, above all, the basic decency of his character, this novel offers an emotive and accurate portrait of the most unlucky of French kings.
Written in a style which calls to mind the memoirs of those who actually lived in the 18th century, Trianon offers us a portrait of the French Royal Family that they themselves would have recognised, I think. Certainly, they would have been moved and touched by it. Unlike other historical novelists, and not just those writing about the 18th century, Trianon has the courage not to fabricate bodice-ripping and ludicrously over-sexualised story lines. Instead, it is focused on duty, on the reality of monarchy, on grace and on religion. Catholicism permeates this novel, as it undoubtedly did the lives of the real French Royal Family. It's refreshing, it's detailed and it's accurate.
Trianon is a novel of the twilight and the night. It takes place somewhere between the mesmerising decadence of the Barqoue and the blood lust of the Revolution. It is no götterdämmerung, no fin de siècle , no gone with the wind. Trianon does not weep for the world of Versailles, submerged like an Atlantis in the tidal wave of the Revolution's hysteria. In fact, Trianon does not weep at all. Through the tragedy and the violence, the genocide and the thousand petty cruelties, Trianon remains, resolutely, a novel of hope. It celebrates finding hope and finding grace and finding courage and sustaining love in the darkest of hours. Above all, Trianon is a haunting and sensitive portrait of a royal couple, armed only with their Faith and their convictions, who deserved a kinder lot whilst they lived and who, I imagine, might weep a little out of gratitude, as the King before his priest, at the affectionate portrayal of them offered-up by the pages of Elena Maria Vidal's Trianon. As this novel shows, by the end, they were not used to kindness.