Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray

Historical fiction of the highest order, The Queen’s Lover reveals the untold love affair between Swedish aristocrat Count Axel Von Fersen and Marie Antoinette

The Queen’s Lover begins at a masquerade ball in Paris in 1774, when the dashing Swedish nobleman Count Axel Von Fersen first meets the mesmerizing nineteen-year old Dauphine Marie Antoinette, wife of the shy, reclusive prince who will soon become Louis XVI. This electric encounter launches a life-long romance that will span the course of the French Revolution.            

The affair begins in friendship, however, and Fersen quickly becomes a devoted companion to the entire royal family. As he roams through the halls of Versailles and visits the private haven of Petit Trianon, Fersen discovers the deepest secrets of the court, even learning about the startling erotic details of Marie-Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI. But the events of the American Revolution tear Fersen away. Moved by the colonists’ fight for freedom, he is one of the very first to enlist in the French contingent of troops that will fight for America’s independence.

When he returns, he finds France on the brink of disintegration. After the Revolution of 1789 the royal family is moved from Versailles to the Tuileries. Fersen devises an escape for the family and their young children--Marie-Thérèse and the Dauphin Louis-Charles--whom many suspect to be Fersen’s son. The failed evasion attempt eventually leads to a grueling imprisonment, and the family spends its excruciating final days in captivity before the King and Queen face the guillotine.

Grieving his lost love after he returns to his native Stockholm, Fersen begins to sense the effects of the French Revolution in his own homeland. Royalists are now targets of the people’s ire, and the carefree, sensuous world of his youth is fast vanishing. Fersen, who has been named Grand Marshal of Sweden, is incapable of realizing that centuries of tradition have disappeared, and he pays dearly for his naïveté, losing his life at the hands of a savage mob that views him as a pivotal member of the aristocracy.

Scion of Sweden’s most esteemed nobility, Fersen came to be seen as an enemy of the homeland he loved. His fate is symbolic of the violent speed with which the events of the 18th century transformed European culture. Expertly researched and deeply imagined, The Queen’s Lover offers a fresh vision of of the French Revolution and of the French royal family, as told through the love story that was at its center.
Count Axel von Fersen is a name that any Marie Antoinette fans would most likely be familiar with. As the man that she was alleged to be having an affair with, his name is inextricably linked with hers as was his life and in some ways his death.

This book is written as a memoir, relying on known history as well as actual letters than have survived from the time and using those to tell of the events of the relationship between Axel and Marie Antoinette as well as many other major events of the late 18th century. Axel tells his story, given the reader a view into important events through the eyes of someone who was there. Various aspects are also told by his beloved sister Sophie who fills in the gaps that Axel left in his memoir or to tell us what was actually going on when he wasn't present.

Axel von Fersen was born into an aristocratic Swedish family and was educated accordingly. In his teens he was sent on a grand tour of Europe. In Paris, he met Marie Antoinette at a masked ball, and so a fateful relationship began. Initially, Axel was a close friend of both the King and Queen but in due course he and Toinette became lovers. It was, however, a turbulent time in France history, and after a brief idyll political events overtook everyone at the French Court with implications that would shape French political life for years to come.

Before those events lead to their eventual outcomes, we spend time with the young count as he signs up to go and fight in the American Revolution. Throughout his life, Axel is much respected, a figure of honour and integrity, as well as brave and handsome. He had very set ideas about honour, and about the proper place of all people within their social strata. This is part of the reason when he was so steadfast in his loyalty to Louis (although not loyal enough to abstain from dallying with his wife). It was also a big part of his unpopularity in his home country during political uprisings which eventually led to his death.

I would go so far as to say that the only place where he didn't behave with honour was really when it came to women. In the course of the book, we find out about his relationship with not only Marie Antoinette but also with other women. He recognises that his own behaviour was unbecoming but it didn't stop it from happening, and there were a couple of graphic scenes that seem to pop into the narrative quite unexpectedly.

You might expect from the title of the book that the majority of the book would focus on the relationship that Axel is portrayed as having with Marie Antoinette. It is a large part for sure, but there is more page space given to the time in America, to the time after the arrests of the royal family and how von Fersen tried to work on their behalf in any way he could, and then on his life back in Sweden where he was accorded several honours as well as behaving in ways that made him unpopular with many people and  leading up to his death.

Writing a novel as either a diary or letters or in this case fictional memoir can be quite difficult and there are very few authors around who seem to be able to do it very well. I didn't mind this book, but it never quite captured my imagination in the way that I really wanted it to. I did find parts very interesting, for example the political interest that Marie Antoinette showed after being arrested and the details of her trial as well as the events in Sweden which is a place that you don't often read much about in historical fiction.

If you are a fan of Marie Antoinette or really enjoy reading about the French Revolution, then you may really enjoy this book. I thought it was a solid read, without being spectacular.

Rating: 3.5/5

Thanks to TLC Booktours and the publisher for an ARC of this book.

You can find details of other stops on the blog tour here


  1. I did read quite a bit about him in one of Jean Plaidy's books about Marie Antoinette.

  2. I would have thought the book would be more about his relationship with the queen but it sounds like it's actually a "biography" of sorts. Interesting!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  3. You know, I don't really know too much about him. The two books I have read about MA have always been about her earlier years and first years at the French court - so I haven't encountered him yet, although I know who he was. This book certainly intrigues me. Thanks for the review - I would love to know more about him.