I’ll admit it- I am a Marie Antoinette obsessive. Benn thinks I have a thing for flawed queens who ultimately lost their heads (oh hai, Anne B./Mary, Queen of Scots!), but I think my interest is primarily about how they moved in a hostile society and how they made sense of their world. But I do have a special place in my heart for Marie Antoinette. I remember buying Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography from Shakespeare and Co on my first trip to Paris and just devoured it. Ultimately, I fall on the side of Marie Antoinette being a victim in a world that she didn’t quite understand and that never really accepted her.
This is perfectly encapsulated in the furore surrounding the Diamond Necklace Affair: a few years before the Revolution, a cardinal is conned into buying a ridiculous diamond necklace by a pretty young conwoman obsessed by her faintly aristocratic roots, thinking that he is buying his way into the favour of queen- who has never liked him. There’s a moonlit meeting (where he is fooled into thinking he has met her) and reams of potentially scandalous letters. Despite never being involved and not knowing anything about the plot until it’s too late, Marie Antoinette becomes embroiled in a PR nightmare which threatens to engulf the French throne- and is said by some to lead the French on a collision course with revolution.
Beckman’s account of the affair, its characters and its aftermath is as entertaining as it is detailed- I found myself chuckling at points (not something that happens all the time when I’m reading non-fiction!) The book finds something sympathetic about most of the characters involved in the story, which is not always easy- but is very effective at reminding us that people are driven to folly in desperate circumstances. It also means that , despite reading like a rollicking crime thriller, we see those involved as people- not merely 2D ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’.