Farewell, My Queen

Chantal Thomas’s superb portrayal of the end of Marie Antoinette’s reign recalls the lines from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Although anarchy is the subject of Thomas’s novel, devotion, loyalty, and courage are its themes.

Marie Antoinette’s sad story is well known, yet Thomas’s fictional retelling in Farewell, My Queen infuses it with a fresh grace and haunting immediacy. First-person narrator and court functionary Agatha-Sidonie Laborde is a keen observer of the nobles who dwell at Versailles. An insular lot, they are obsessed with the rituals of court life. After the Bastille falls, disbelief, denial, and finally fear grip the isolated courtiers. Marie Antoinette stands as a dynamic figure at the maelstrom’s center, but she cannot prevent the inevitable. As “things fall apart,” the doomed queen arranges the exile of her favorite, Gabrielle de Polignac and her family, and Madame Laborde.

A specialist in eighteenth century literature, Thomas skillfully employs images and symbols to lend a surreal depth to her narrative. The stench of the swamp on which the opulent palace is built reflects the decay of the court. The “unrequited love” of a vagabond stalking the queen parallels Madame Laborde’s erotically tinged devotion to Marie Antoinette. Panic, personified as a kitchen wench, terrorizes the aristocrats. An ailing ostrich in the royal menagerie epitomizes the courtiers’ propensity for sticking their heads in the sand in blind denial.

Thomas’s masterful knowledge of history paired with her artful storytelling powerfully evokes the faded glory of Versailles and the tragedy of Marie Antoinette’s last days as queen of France.