Below is a book review "Save the Queen" By RUTH SCURR of the recent book, "THE QUEEN'S LOVER", By Francine du Plessix Gray, published yeaterday in the New York Times.
"The historical novel is enjoying a ren¬aissance in the Anglophone world. There are many contributing factors, including the trans-Atlantic success of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and its sequel, "Bring Up the Bodies"; a resurgence of interest in Sir Walter Scott, the father of historical fiction, who won international recognition in the 19th century; and a growing acknowledgment between novelists and historians that they often share not only sources but certain techniques.
"Francine du Plessix Gray has previously written distinguished works of fiction and nonfiction, most recently a biography, "Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman." Now turning her attention to the Swedish aristocrat Count Axel von Fersen the Younger (1755-1810), she has chosen to present him in a novel centered on his alleged affair with Marie Antoinette.
"Fersen first met the future queen of France in Paris at a masked ball in 1774, when they were both 18. He had finished his grand tour and his military and language studies, and she was trying to conceive a child with her husband, the future Louis XVI. Fersen soon left for London, then went home to Sweden, eventually returning to Paris "the city of my dreams," as Gray's Fersen would have it in 1778. By this time, Marie Antoinette was at last pregnant. When Fersen departed again, it was to fight for American freedom, arriving in Rhode Island with the Comte de Rochambeau's forces on July 11, 1780.
Throughout the novel, Gray quotes from Fersen's own writings, including the letters he sent to his father in Sweden: "We wish to join General Washington, who is only 25 miles from New York. . . . I don't yet know if this junction can be made. . . . We're expecting General Clinton at any moment; he has sailed from New York with 10,000 men; we're ready to confront him."
"The present-tense immediacy of these letters, full of dramatic uncertainty about what will happen next, contrasts sharply with the somewhat stiff phrasing of the backward-looking fictional memoirs sometimes from Fersen's perspective, sometimes from that of his sister Sophie that Gray makes the vehicle for her ¬storytelling.
Returning to Paris in 1783, her Fersen finds himself ever more deeply charmed by Marie Antoinette and her girlish, impulsive questions: Comment est-il, ce George Washington? Historians can't settle the question did they or did they not have a consummated love affair? As a novelist, Gray can. "Have you ever felt totally consumed by the intensity of a woman's love?" Fersen asks. "Have you ever had the sense it is sublime that you were the first to ever fulfill her sensual needs? All this and heaven too I ¬experienced."
"Fersen was in Paris for the beginning of the revolution in May 1789. He welcomed the convocation of the Estates-¬General, which represented the clergy, the nobility and the third estate, mindful of the role the Swedish Riksdag had played in his own country since the Middle Ages. But his support soon withered as the revolution turned increasingly violent. On July 22, he wrote to his father in terms Edmund Burke would have approved: "Riots are taking place in all the cities of the kingdom. . . . The prisons have been opened, and it is that kind of rabble who creates the disorder. . . . We must now see what the Estates-General will do; but at this moment all bonds are broken; obedience has disappeared in the army, and I doubt if it will be as easy to restore order as it was to overthrow it."
"Fersen is perhaps best remembered for his attempt to rescue the royal family after they had been forcibly rehoused at the Tuileries, helping to master¬mind what became known as the Flight to Varennes, during which Marie Antoinette's blond hair reputedly turned snow white. Here, again, Gray seems more like a fastidious historian than a novelist, having her Fersen name his sources for the account of the failed escape included in his memoir.
"After "my Toinette's" execution, Gray's brokenhearted Fersen embarks on a series of violent erotic encounters: "I relished their moans of pain or pleasure, and that exquisite shouting that occurs when the two sensations are admixed. . . . I was at it almost every day, sometimes capturing five, six women in one week." Fondly, ludicrously, he compares himself to Don Giovanni.
"The novel ends with his sister's account of Fersen's own violent death on June 20, 1810, the 19th anniversary of the Flight to Varennes. Suspected of having poisoned Crown Prince Karl August of Sweden, he is set upon by an angry mob in Stockholm, bludgeoned by people Sophie dismisses as "foul riffraff." Dutifully, she adds the report of another witness, who saw them as "part of that middle class, which, more than the lower class, envies aristocrats and sees them as criminals." A biographer would need to explain these events; a novelist can simply describe them.
""The Queen's Lover" aims to evoke an intimate sense of Fersen's self and to tell the story of the revolutions in France and Sweden through which he lived. Transposing these essentially biographical objectives into a novel allows for imaginative license with regard to the first and selective attention to the second. But the transitions between Fersen's personal recollections and the necessary scene-¬setting of larger historic events can be awkward. "In order to clarify the quandaries facing France's royal couple," Fersen tells us at one point, "I must now pause and give the reader a brief glimpse of European dynastic politics in the 1790s."
"One of the problems haunting the historical novel is the uncertainty that ensues from merging fact and fiction. How can the reader tell truth from invention? In this instance, it's relatively easy. Gray has written a hybrid book part history, part fiction rather than a well-¬integrated historical novel. In doing so, she lays bare the troublesome foundations of the genre.
New York Times Book Review above is by Ruth Scurr teaches history and politics at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of "Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution."