I was very touched to read Elena Maria Vidal's novels, Trianon and Madame Royale. In these painstakingly researched, beautifully written and deeply felt works, she paints a compelling portrait of the tragedy of the French royal family in the wake of the Revolution. Drawing heavily on first-hand accounts of the period, told through vignettes and reminiscences, the story is incredibly (indeed, painfully) vivid. It is a tale of Christian fortitude amidst dynastic downfall and national apocalypse.
In Trianon, correcting many misconceptions (such as the King as feeble idiot and the Queen as decadent airhead), Miss Vidal provides a moving and intimate portrayal of the tragic Louis XVI and the viciously maligned Marie-Antoinette. Their love for God, each other, their children and the people of France are all conveyed with poignant intensity. Ultimately, they are killed for the ideals they represent as Catholic monarchs, facing their doom with the charity and magnanimity of martyrs.
Madame Royale tells the story of Marie-Thérèse, Duchesse d'Angoulême, only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. It centers on the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), a period simmering with secret warfare between revolution and reaction. In Trianon, faith gives the King and Queen the courage to face death; in Madame Royale, faith gives their daughter the courage to face life. Marie-Thérèse's story is truly one of bloodless martyrdom. Severely traumatized by the terrible experiences of her youth, trapped in an unhappy, barren marriage, surrounded by plots, intrigues, and political upheavals, she perseveres in faith and good works. Her struggle to restore the Catholic monarchy is ultimately a losing battle, and an immense sense of loss and weariness pervades the book. Particularly poignant are the passages describing Marie-Thérèse's haunting doubts regarding the fate of her little, lost brother and her fruitless search for him. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note...
I have read several reviews claiming that the books are too religious and/or over-idealize the protagonists. The devout faith of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Madame Royale, however, is well-documented, and it would not be realistic to ignore or to downplay the role of Catholicism in their lives. Nor do I think that the royal family are over-idealized. Their spiritual journeys are presented as hard and painful and they struggle with human failings along the way. Against his conscience, for instance, the King signs the Civil Constitution of the Clergy under duress, an action he later bitterly regrets. Before maturing gracefully into a noble wife and mother, Marie-Antoinette is portrayed as a kind, charming, but imperfect young girl, apt to be headstrong and rash. Marie-Thérèse's rigidity and refusal to compromise the divine right of kings, coupled with her cold manner (although these are understandable results of her early traumas), contribute to alienating many from the cause of the Catholic monarchy. Nonetheless, the fact remains that she, like her parents, ultimately attains a high degree of spiritual heroism.