Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days:
Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie
(history – nonfiction)
Release date: December 1, 2016
at Rowman & Littlefield
In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, Bashor’s aim is to document Marie-Antoinette’s last days of imprisonment in the fairest way, helping readers find sense between numerous conflicting accounts, without taking part. He does it brilliantly and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as much as I did the previous one by the author, on Marie-Antoinette and her hairdresser.
This book is based on archived documents and second sources material (from the 18th and 19th centuries). All the quotes have been (correctly!) translated by the author, with the original French text provided by the author in end notes (a total of 43 pages, where you can find all the references alluded to).
The former queen was first imprisoned with her children in the Temple prison. Then, her son Louis-Charles was separated from her and incarcerated in worse conditions. After rumors of conspiracy, she was taken to the Conciergerie prison, in the middle of the night. Her main trials also happened by night!
Amidst the general hatred towards her, it was interesting to see mentions of goodness and compassionate help given to her, for instance through the prison wardens. Common workers and small merchants even joined forces to organize plots. Along those months, many plots were actually organized to save the queen (even one by a British actress!), but last minute details blocked the plans, as well as originally her refusal to escape without her children.
Some scenes (for instance the scene of separation when she was transferred from one prison to the other, and when she was led from la Conciergerie to her place of execution) are recounted in a very lively style. You could easily imagine following the events through your own eyes.
There are also amazing descriptions of the horrific conditions of the prisoners in la Conciergerie, which fit what I saw when I visited it myself a few years ago. Add to that the heavy hemorrhaging the queen was constantly suffering from, and the records of cold temperature in France that October, and you understand this was a far cry from Versailles, to say the least!!
The author provides a very detailed presentation of the major interrogation series (the first after the Carnation plot, and the other one of course right before Marie-Antoinette’s execution), with everyone involved. Her very long final indictment is analyzed paragraph by paragraph.
Here and there, I found interesting tidbits I had not read about, for instance the fees she was charged for book rentals while at la Conciergerie!
She spent 76 days in prison, longer than usual for the prisoners of the time, waiting for their execution. Originally, instead of killing her, the idea was to use her as a hostage to exchange for Austria’s ending of the war, going on at the same time!
After the execution, the author examines what happened to her children and the other main actors of the story. Plus the whole question of her burial, her disinterment and reburial at Saint-Denis (all the pictures are mine), with the possible questions about the real identity of the remains considered hers.
Bashor provides a scholarly, fair, and lively analysis of Marie-Antoinette’s last days, always choosing the “dignity and respect due any human being”.
Each chapter ends with some extra material on points of related interest.
The narrative is accompanied with beautiful black and white illustrations.
After the end notes, one can also find 11 pages of selected bibliography as well as a complete alphabetical index.
All these fascinating data should help you get a glimpse at Marie-Antoinette’s real portrait. She was mostly used as a political pawn, from her early years, when her mother sent her to be married to a Bourbon, hoping to strengthen an alliance with Austria’s enemy. Political parties still tried to use her image after her death.
VERDICT: Scholarly analysis and lively narrative combine here to provide us with a magnificent presentation of Marie-Antoinette’s last days. For all history buffs.
This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.
Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning
Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie,
was released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy,
Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.
Visit him on his website
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