Review | Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter – Susan Nagel

About the Book

The first major biography of one of France’s most mysterious women—Marie Antoinette’s only child to survive the revolution.

Susan Nagel, author of the critically acclaimed biography Mistress of the Elgin Marbles, turns her attention to the life of a remarkable woman who both defined and shaped an era, the tumultuous last days of the crumbling ancien régime. Nagel brings the formidable Marie-Thérèse to life, along with the age of revolution and the waning days of the aristocracy, in a page-turning biography that will appeal to fans of Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette and Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire.

In December 1795, at midnight on her seventeenth birthday, Marie-Thérèse, the only surviving child of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, escaped from Paris’s notorious Temple Prison. To this day many believe that the real Marie-Thérèse, traumatized following her family’s brutal execution during the Reign of Terror, switched identities with an illegitimate half sister who was often mistaken for her twin. Was the real Marie-Thérèse spirited away to a remote castle to live her life as the woman called “the Dark Countess,” while an imposter played her role on the political stage of Europe? Now, two hundred years later, using handwriting samples, DNA testing, and an undiscovered cache of Bourbon family letters, Nagel finally solves this mystery. She tells the remarkable story in full and draws a vivid portrait of an astonishing woman who both defined and shaped an era. Marie-Thérèse’s deliberate choice of husbands determined the map of nineteenth-century Europe. Even Napoleon was in awe and called her “the only man in the family.” Nagel’s gripping narrative captures the events of her fascinating life from her very public birth in front of the rowdy crowds and her precocious childhood to her hideous time in prison and her later reincarnation in the public eye as a saint, and, above all, her fierce loyalty to France throughout.

418 pages (hardcover)
Published on March 18, 2008
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I’ve read a lot of biographies in my day, but I don’t think any of them have moved me to actual tears the way this one did. 

When I read history, I’m often more interested in what happens after, or what happens before the Big Event. It’s interesting to me. World War II is a fascinating, horrible conflict, but I’m less interested in the actual war, and more interested in what happened that allowed a war like that to even be a possibility in the first place, if that makes sense, and I’m interested in how Europe picked up the pieces right after. This book is sort of like that. The French Revolution, as told through the eyes of someone who lived through the meat of it, and survived long after. 

This isn’t going to be one of my typical reviews, because I just can’t get this book out of my head. 

Marie-Therese was the eldest child of Marie-Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI. She was born into a life of luxury in the infamous Versailles Palace. She learned at an early age how to perform in public, and keep her royal mask on until she was in private and could truly be herself. In some ways, I think this made her a rather divided person, and that shows up again and again in this book, with her obvious discomfort in situations, but powering through them anyway. 

When she was ten, the French Revolution really got going, and she and her family were moved out of Versailles forcefully (literally, lots of blood and guts, lots of things happening that were absolutely traumatizing to the children who witnessed them). They were moved into Paris, where the lived in an old, moldy palace surrounded by guards whose job was to watch them and report on everything that was said. Occasionally the family would be marched out for public events, or for trials where they would stand before a room full of people and have abuses heaped upon them. As a child, she’d have to stand there and stoically watch while her mother and father were dehumanized by a mob of angry French men and women.

At ten, you can imagine how traumatic this must have been. 

Anyway, things happened. There was a failed escape attempt, and that was really when stuff went from bad to worse. This was when they were moved into a prison, when her father was beheaded, and the family was separated. And while I knew the outline of all these events, it was quite another thing to learn about it from the writings of a woman coming of age in the middle of all of this. And you know, I was fine… FINE… until I realized that the government forbid anyone from telling Marie-Therese that her mother was dead, and until I read about the absolutely horrible, awful conditions her brother lived in (that poor boy was abused in ways that nearly gave me nightmares), and how she was likewise unaware of his tragic, awful death despite the fact that he was kept in the room right below her. 

So, she spends about seven years of her life in lockdown, living in one prison or another. As a teenager, she refused to talk for over a year. At one point, when she was nearing the age of seventeen, the government started to negotiate a trade (Marie-Therese for twenty hostages) with Austria, they sent someone to Marie-Therese to get her used to talking again, and using her voice. This woman, who became like a family to this isolated teenager, couldn’t take holding the secret of her mother and brother’s deaths anymore, so after years in the case of Marie-Antoinette, and months for her ten-year-old brother, she finally learned that she was the last person in her immediate family alive, and it nearly broke her, I’m guessing. 

(Despite rumors that her brother had escaped, these are all unfounded.)

Then she leaves, and instead of getting time to adjust to life again, she has to navigate these treacherous waters of marriage, because whoever she marries matters. She throws her lot in with the monarchists, and France, and her life continues on… but on a personal level, going from being in one prison or another for seven years, to “hey, marry this guy” must have given her whiplash, the likes of which I cannot begin to fathom. 

I know I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, and I’ll attempt to stop being so plot-spoilery here, but her life really, really floored me. We know about her parents losing their heads. We know about Marie-Antoinette and all her hair, but not much is known about Marie-Therese, and how she had to navigate these political waters, despite very obviously having some real, unaddressed PTSD, and emotional trauma from what she’d suffered through. She still pulled herself together and was a woman around whom events turned. It is unfortunate that her name isn’t spoken in wider circles even today. 

The only real crime these children committed was the sin of being born, and her little brother suffered unimaginable abuses and died of starvation and (insert disease here… you can really just pick one and the poor boy had it) because of it, and Marie-Therese, I daresay, likely never had a “normal” life or psyche due to it.

I can’t imagine her life. I really can’t. I had to periodically stop reading this book so I could just absorb what I was taking in. And the thing is, this is a biography, but it reads more like a novel. If I didn’t know it was real, I wouldn’t believe it. 

In her own way, Marie-Therese’s childhood, pre-French Revolution really was the bedrock upon which she built the house of her soul. She knew how to navigate these treacherous political waters, and despite always struggling with the memories of what happened, she remained doggedly loyal to her country and the people who live in it for all her days, even through her numerous stints in exile. She never had children, though she had very close friends and family, whom she considered her own. She was a person people went to for advice, and she was highly regarded and admired, even becoming somewhat of a pop-culture icon in her day. 

Nagel wrote an absolutely amazing biography here. It honestly is probably one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and I do think it’s rather criminal that more people haven’t read it. She’s managed to take someone that has maybe faded a bit in the historical tapestry, and breathed stunning life into them. Under Nagel’s deft hand, Marie-Therese was not just a person I read about, but hers was a story I felt like I was living. It gave me a new perspective of the French Revolution, and a new understanding of a heroic woman who somehow, despite all odds, survived a situation that I think would have broken most people. 

If you’ve got any interest in the French Revolution, I think this book needs to be essential reading. 

5/5 stars

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