Review of Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie by

Book cover for Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

It’s entirely a coincidence that I read about Marie Antoinette in Trainwreck just prior to picking up Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days. That being said, it was nice to have a little primer from Sady Doyle about why Antoinette is such a fascinating character from a feminist perspective. Here, Will Bashor pieces together Antoinette’s experiences while imprisoned in the Conciergerie prior to her trial and execution. He draws upon a wealth of primary sources in an attempt to fill a gap in his reading of histories and biographies of this queen. While he doesn’t always succeed at holding my interest, it’s undeniable that he has produced a work of detail and an elegantly structured resource for anyone trying to learn about the French Revolution.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rowman & Littlefield for providing an ARC of this book. My Kindle version wasn’t formatted very well. This book has lots of pictures that were just sort of haphazardly tossed in here, and the footnotes were scattered throughout the paragraphs (in red), like they had just scanned in the print edition and run OCR on it. There are also many extended quotations that are neither in quotation marks nor offset from the author’s text, so it can be hard to tell when they end. I say none of this to knock the book, for I’m sure the final editions will be professionally formatted—but I wanted to provide context for why I found this book difficult to read at times.

My main issue with Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days arises from Bashor’s tone and decisions to convey so much of the primary source material directly to the reader. He warns in the Author’s Note:

Considering the efforts to reconstruct these scenes, readers may find that Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days at times reads like a novel. However, with vigorous research and study of archived documents and secondary material from mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources, I have made every effort to retell this incredible story as accurately as possible.

OK, unpopular opinion time: If you want to write a novel, write a novel. If you want to write a non-fiction history, write a non-fiction history.

Consider Alison Weir, whose fiction and non-fiction both I have enjoyed in the past. I know Weir’s non-fiction is a bit more pop than Bashor might be going for here. The point, however, is that she recognized when she wanted to make use of the conceits and freedom provided by a novel to explore a historical person and place. If Bashor wanted to write extended scenes of mostly dialogue, whether in transcript form or no, and plumb the depths of his characters’ minds … perhaps he should have written an actual novel, instead of writing a non-fiction book and then offering up the excuse that it “reads like a novel”.

I recognize that this is a stylistic quibble and that other readers can probably get over this hurdle just fine. Indeed, most of my criticism here is stylistic in nature. Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days is far from a poor book in either structure or execution (uh, pardon the pun—and that one). It’s quite accessible to people like me, who only have a general knowledge of the French Revolution, despite Bashor offering little in the way of generalized exposition (there is a “prelude” at the front and a chronology, though, both of which are helpful). I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as the very first book anyone reads about the Revolution, but you don’t need extensive background knowledge to follow what happens here.

By the same token, Bashor sticks to his topic. Any time he deviates from discussing Antoinette directly is only to discuss the key players in those last months of her life or the investigations surrounding plots to free her. He mentions the concurrent developments in France and political squabbles between Jacobins and Girondins only insofar as they are germane to Antoinette’s situation. I applaud this focus and ability to keep on track. Each chapter follows in a logical progression from the previous one, beginning with Antoinette’s transport to and imprisonment in the Conciergerie and ending with her trial and execution. (The trial chapters were a little boring. Again, lots of transcript and minute recounting every detail.) There’s even an epilogue that traces the decades following her death and the fates of those who survived her.

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days is at times too thorough, and this is the comment that both praises and damns the book. I can see this being a valuable resource for a student of French history, if only because Bashor has already done so much work for them in terms of finding primary and secondary sources and translating it into English. For more general audiences like myself, your reaction is likely to be far more mixed. If you’re really keen on learning about Antoinette, you will learn a little from here—though maybe not as much in her own words as you might expect.

Engagement

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