If you have never heard of Count Axel von Fersen, you are perhaps in the majority. While everyone can picture the tragic Marie Antoinette, who lost her head to the guillotine in the midst of the French Revolution, only the more thoroughgoing students of history know much about her lover‚ an influential Swedish nobleman in his own right. Now the redoubtable Francine du Plessix Gray, author of studies like At Home with the Marquis de Sade and the National Book Critics Circle Award‚ winning Them: A Memoir of My Parents, has brought the count fully to life. Yet her method is not biography but fiction.
In The Queen’s Lover, out from Penguin Press this June, Gray offers a rich and exacting portrait of Fersen and his world. Reading it is like stepping through one of Versailles’s famed looking glasses into the roistering turmoil of late 1700s France and seeing it afresh, freed from the endless shellacking of time and myth. Given her command of the history, why did Gray choose to tell her story in fiction‚ an area, one hastens to add, in which she also excels?
It wasn’t a set decision, explained Gray in an interview at her publisher’s office in lower Manhattan, as she clarified the emblematic experience of having the writing speaks to the writer. I began with the scene where [Fersen and Marie Antoinette] first meet, and instead of saying he, I said I. The count mostly tells his own story, but occasionally we hear the voice of his sister, Sophie, who speaks up boldly to describe and defend him. The tenderness between them‚ indeed, this is as much a story of sibling affection as of Fersen’s great love for the queen‚ might not have been conveyed so convincingly in a sheer historical account.
Fiction also has the advantage of allowing the writer to move beyond bare fact and create a more immediate and sensuous environment. Of her favorite chapter, which portrays a Versailles littered with food scraps and beset by unwashed courtiers who relieve themselves in the corners, Gray observed that readers can smell and feel, as well as see, how Versailles reeked! You can’t do that in nonfiction. You could quote a letter, but the voice itself carries so much more sensory weight. Coming from clean and tidy Sweden, the count is so overcome by the awful stench on his first visit to the palace that he requires smelling salts, which readers might want to resort to as well.
In her account, Gray vivifies not only France but Fersen’s homeland, which should please the historically astute while giving new and interesting information to those less familiar with Sweden’s illustrious past. Sweden is off the map in our historical study, remarked Gray, but at the time it was the major naval power in Europe‚ a fact highlighted by Fersen’s relentless diplomatic missions and easy access to the elevated French court. Intriguing, too, is Gray’s portrait of the little-known Swedish king Gustavus III. Said the author of this fascinating character, He was a gay intellectual who really founded modern Swedish culture.
Other great characters abound in this novel, not least of which are Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI. They are typically seen as shallow, frivolous sorts, pitied for a fate that the unkind often think they deserved. But Gray offers solidly grounded revisionism. Her Marie Antoinette is no simpering flirt but a sensitive young woman trying her best to reckon with the forces arrayed against her. And Louis is not only pious‚ the night before his execution, he was ready to meet his maker, downing a feast and then sleeping soundly‚ but a great intellectual, as Gray observes. He knew Milton by heart.
Of course, the most persuasive character is Fersen himself, a man of grave demeanor and firm convictions devoted to queen, class, and country. Yet he’s nuanced, too. Though a determined aristocrat, refusing to adjust as republican fervor swept his homeland after the Revolution, Fersen fought for American independence. (What Swede at the time didn’t hate the British?) And though firmly committed to Marie Antoinette, even unto her memory after her death, he’s called a notorious seducer by his own sister. He was a man with a big libido, and he admitted it, observed Gray. But he did not go to prostitutes; he liked only classy ladies. He felt a bit guilty, but, after all, it was hard to get to the queen.
Committed lover, confessed seducer, and unyielding aristocrat: what does Count Axel von Fersen have to say to us today? That integrity and loyalty are the most important things in life, averred Gray. He doesn’t cater to the crowd; he wants to be himself. Just as history has lessons for us, so does historical fiction. And few novelists could so effectively show us how to hold firm in roiling times (like our own) as Gray.