- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Pen and Sword (March 3, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1473853338
- ISBN-13: 978-1473853331
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #481,293 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe Hardcover – March 17, 2017
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About the Author
Geri Walton has long been fascinated by history and the people who create it. Their stories and the reasons why they did what they did encouraged her to receive a BA in History from San Jose State University, where she graduated summa cum laude. She is particularly interested in European history of the 18th and 19th Centuries, which has resulted in her website, http://www.geriwalton.com and her blog http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com. You can also find her on twitter @18thCand19thC.
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But what about non-fiction? What about books with endnotes and references and related appendages of scholarly writing? I have the same standards, folks, although they are a bit more rigorous. But biographies, unlike other non-fiction works, have a couple of rules peculiar to the genre. The first is that the subject of the biography must be far more important, for good or ill, than anyone else on the planet, or why bother researching and writing about him or her? The second is to place the subject on every single page or, better yet, every paragraph. The third is to carefully evaluate the sources that help tell the story, balancing the favorable with the critical, and avoiding unreliable sources altogether.
End of lecture.
What we have here, Dear Readers, is an alleged biography that violates all the rules. Every one of them. The subject, the princesse de Lamballe, is so inconsequential that she can’t manage to stand alone on the cover of her own story but must share it with Marie-Antoinette, who gets top billing. More unfortunate is that the poor princess is represented on the cover by one of the ugliest portraits imaginable, scary enough to frighten small children and put off readers who might venture too close.
Instead of a scholarly biography of a completely inconsequential princess whose only claim to dubious fame was her on-again-off-again association with Marie-Antoinette, we get the Parisian version of the National Enquirer, circa 1789, similar in style, tone, and content to the cheap pamphlets and broadsheets printed in cellars and sold by the thousands on the Pont Neuf. The princess appears like a Jack-in-the-box, now at Versailles, then at Saint-Cloud, her aristocratic relatives’ various chateaux, Turin, spas, and on and on, without ever appearing long enough to leave the slightest impression of her character, her thoughts, anything. Instead of placing the princess squarely on each page, we get sentences, one after the other, like these: “Meanwhile, as the princess de Lamballe enjoyed herself at Aix-la-Chapelle…,” “Although the princess was no longer at Versailles, Marie-Antoinette…,” In the princesse de Lamballe’s absence, the duchesse d’Orléans saw….”
So the princess is left on the sidelines because the author simply could not find any sources that were substantive enough to put her subject before us on at least every other page, much less sustain an entire biography. As a result, this book chronicles Marie-Antoinette far more—as if anyone needs to read about her again!—than the princesse de Lamballe. In a fit of frustration, I calculated that at least three-quarters of the twenty chapters featured various personages, from the high and mighty royal family to the aristocratic B-List. By the time the exasperated sans-culottes got their hands on the princess and cut off her head, I was actually relieved that my slog through this book was over. But wait! The last chapter was all about Antoinette losing her head too. I have to say that the author provided nothing to make me care about this third-rate princess, despite valiant but consistently unpersuasive attempts to make a kind, lovely, sweet, charitable, and ever so special silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Sometimes only a cliché will do, dontcha know.
Then there are the sources. Writers who are good at history—the non-fiction kind—are always familiar with the vagaries, pitfalls, and genuine pleasures of historiography, and know how to choose balanced, credible, and convincing sources, many of which ought to be original and documentary material, and not simply memoirs of questionable authenticity or secondary sources that merely rehash historical canards and rumors. The author relied on books published in the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century. She relied on news articles published by British papers, whose views of France, especially during the Revolution, were amazingly skewed. For some reason, newspaper articles from Pittsburgh made an appearance. She made no effort whatever to investigate why some memoirs pictured Lamballe one way, while others saw her much differently. Instead, she simply dishes it all out with no analysis, no discernment, and in some cases, providing really awful translations. Case in point: the name of a dog was Mignon, which the author tells us means “cute,” which is correct when you Goggle it, but incorrect for late 18th century France, where it meant dainty or sweet. A small thing in historical fiction, to be sure, but not so much in non-fiction, and it happens here over and over.
I found an unacceptable number of historical errors from first to last, using my trusty Kindle highlighter more than 70 times. Many of these mistakes arise from misinterpreting Wikipedia articles—how is that even possible?—or lacking a basic understanding of the period during which Lamballe lived, especially with regard to the Revolution, which unfurls as a ludicrous mash-up of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Tale of Two Cities, brought to us courtesy of drunken mobs, bloodthirsty men, insurrectionists, and crazed crowds. Mon Dieu! This list is long, too long for this already long review, but I have no reason to exaggerate on this point. Do let me know if you’re interested in the specifics.
I wonder what the author expected to accomplish with this biography, when the details concerning the princesse de Lamballe were so thin on the ground, so thin, in fact, that she had to pad her book by more than 65% with the comings and goings of a great many other people. What was the motivation to write about someone so historically marginal that she could not manage to give us a cohesive, coherent portrait of her subject? Did she think that any aristocratic woman in Marie-Antoinette’s orbit was worth her very own biography? If Lamballe was indeed one of Antoinette's "closest confidante," as the author claims, then Antoinette certainly didn't share much with Lamballe other than empty platitudes and polite phrases. Whatever the reasons, this book is an epic failure as a story of Lamballe, and of the larger world of Versailles and Paris in a critical and complex period of history. It is historically sloppy, written in an inappropriately casual, clunky style, and without much of anything to recommend it. I’ve read historical novels that were better researched and better written. So go read those and avoid this mess.
*I would like to thank Pen & Sword History and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and enjoy Marie Antoinette's Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe