Sena Jeter Naslund takes up the ambitious task of chronicling the life of Marie Antoinette, 18th century queen of France, in Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette. In this fictional journal/memoir, Naslund does not depict Marie Antoinette as the cold, vain and selfish queen as her reception has been throughout history. Rather, the young woman exposes herself to the reader as simply naive and misunderstood, as she shares “her side” of the story. We meet the young princess at the tender age of fourteen, when she leaves the home of her mother, Empress of Austria, to marry the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, Louis-Auguste. As Marie Antoinette tries to be a sweet and supportive wife, her young husband is unable to consummate their marriage. Not being able to bear the Dauphin an heir brings the young Dauphine much suffering.
Naslund’s thorough research on French royalty and history, and the court and culture of Versailles, is nothing short of remarkable. Most of the time, the reader has sympathy for the Dauphine, although at times her immaturity can be grating. While a very good introduction to Marie Antoinette, the author does shed a more favorable and sympathetic bias toward the queen, representing her as a compassionate, heartfelt young woman who was mortally misunderstood by the French people (and by some in the royal court). All of the queen’s negative aspects are instead left ambiguous– did she really make that error out of deliberate ignorance, or was she forced or misguided by someone else? Did she really have an affair with the French soldier, or was theirs simply a close yet innocent friendship? Either way, this is a very good work of historical fiction.
By the time I finished reading this novel, I felt as though I’d returned from an epic journey. Naslund really transports the reader to that place and time. Abundance is not easily forgotten, and I continue to carry what I’ve learned from it.