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Best Biographies of Louis XVI

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Best Biographies of Louis XVI

Post  Elena on Thu Oct 20, 2011 4:32 pm

I like Nesta Webster. Bernard Fay is good, too.

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Bernard Faÿ

Post  Elena on Tue Nov 29, 2011 8:53 pm

The strange case of Bernard Faÿ is another example of how the labels of "liberal' and "conservative" are not adequate when dealing with certain complex persons and situations. Faÿ was a French scholar and an expert on the history of Franco-American relations. In the 1930's he authored several works which were hailed by conservatives as proving that the Freemasons were responsible for causing the French Revolution.

Many of Faÿ's assertions have since been challenged. The only work of his that I ever read was Louis XVI ou la fin d'un Monde, which I found helpful for gleaning some details of Louis' life, although I would not recommend it as a history of the Revolution itself. Faÿ also obviously detested Marie-Antoinette and had nothing good to say about her. He worked for many years at the Bibliothèque Nationale and so had access to many documents; his scholarship should not perhaps be entirely dismissed, but read with discernment and in light of his political extremism.

Faÿ was one of many people who in the 1930's and 40's turned to utopian political movements to solve the problems of the world. Death and violence were seen as regrettable but necessary means of obtaining peace on earth. Faÿ collaborated with the Vichy government and the Nazis, handing over thousands of people; he became as bad as the revolutionaries whom he had condemned in his writings.

Another odd twist is that Faÿ was a friend of Gertrude Stein and her close friend Alice; his influence with the Nazis probably prevented the two Jewish Americans from being arrested, as a recent book claims. Faÿ, it turns out, had a boyfriend in the gestapo. How strange that people who were at opposite ends of the political spectrum were nevertheless united by similar proclivities and lifestyle choices.

Sources:
http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2008/01/enigmatic-bernard-fa.html

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Nesta Webster

Post  Elena on Tue Nov 29, 2011 9:00 pm

Years ago, while researching Trianon, I read Nesta Webster's Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution and really appreciated it for the masterful character study of the royal couple. Every contention is carefully documented while written in a stirring yet composed style. I decided long ago that Mrs Webster's dual biography was the one I would wanted to have written myself.

Having recently finished the second volume of the biography, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the Revolution, I felt inspired to write a review. I dutifully googled Nesta Webster and to my horror saw her on many websites accused of being "a fascist and an anti-semite." She also appears to be the Queen of Conspiracy theories. She is certainly a cause of much cyber-polarization; she is either praised as being one of the greatest historians who ever lived or else dismissed as an obscurantist fanatic and a believer in reincarnation. Most biographical accounts I have found are written by those who detested her, so I do not know how balanced they are. I see her as being a bit like the Lord Darlington character in the Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day. Many in the British upper and middle classes in the 1930’s saw fascism as a political solution and a viable response to the proposed Communist takeover of the world.

Similarly, there were Americans in the 1920’s and 30’s who were infatuated with Communism and saw “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a great guy, oblivious to the thousands whom he and Lenin had already murdered. Looking back, there is so much more we now know about the Communists, Nazis and other socialist and fascist groups than their contemporaries did at the time. Any association with Nazism, even from a distance, can taint someone’s research for all posterity, which is what has happened to Nesta Webster.

For a general history of the French Revolution, I have found Simon Schama’s Citizens to be very reliable. Webster’s two volume work on Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, however, cannot be ignored by any serious student of the revolutionary era, even if one finds assertions of Masonic conspiracies to be laughable, as many scholars do.

Of Louis XVI Webster writes: “As Soulavie says again, under former kings the monarch was the idol of the nation, under Louis XVI, on the contrary, the nation was the object almost of adoration of the King.” She discusses the painting by Hersent of “Louis XVI relieving the Afflicted” of which an eye-witness later said that art completely imitated reality in that case.

Webster lists the many reforms of Louis XVI which began in 1774 at the beginning of his reign, including the abolition of torture, civil rights for Jews and Protestants, the abolition of servitude and lettres de cachet, and many more. By July of 1789, with the problems with the Estates-General and the death of his oldest son, he was essentially having a nervous breakdown. Indeed, the King had a series of physical and mental collapses in the last turbulent years of his life; it is amazing he was able to function at all. The queen became his strength, and therefore Marie-Antoinette more than ever became the target of the pamphleteers and of those who wanted control of the throne. Louis XVI did not want to leave his people in the hands of extremists and the queen, of course, would not leave his side. “I will die at his feet” she was heard to say repeatedly, when it was suggested that she try to escape on her own.

Webster shows how on several occasions, when attacked by the mob, it had been the hope of the revolutionary leaders, especially the Duc d’Orleans, that the royal couple would either flee or be killed. The fact that Louis and Antoinette were able to ride the tide of total upheaval for four years can be attributed to their courage, which gained the respect even of those intent upon tearing them to pieces. The king and especially the queen had the gift of turning enemies, such as Mirabeau, Barnave, and Toulan, into friends. As the revolutionary leader Barnave found, according to Beaulieu, “the Queen treated him with that affectionate politeness which had led her to being given the title of ‘Mary, full of grace (Marie, pleine de graces).’” Webster shows how the blunders of the far right (the émigrés abroad) led to the destruction of Louis, Antoinette and their family as much as did the malice of their enemies on the left. Nevertheless, the king, queen and Madame Elisabeth were distinguished for their profound courtesy, kindness and forgiveness, even in the most desperate situations.

Their trials forged Louis and Antoinette into one, as Webster demonstrates throughout her work with many citations. At the beginning of their imprisonment in the Temple in August 1792, the queen shed tears, saying to her husband: “I weep less for myself than for you.”

Louis XVI replied: “Our eyes were not given us to weep with, but to look up to Heaven, the source of all our consolations….”
At these words, the queen dried her eyes and faced the situation with the magnificent courage that sustained her to the end. It was now that she entered the fifth phase of her life. Once, a light-hearted child—then a pleasure-loving woman—a mother—a politician—she fulfilled her tragic destiny to the last and became that great figure revered by all noble minds of posterity—the Queen Martyr.


Last edited by Elena on Tue Nov 29, 2011 9:03 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Best Biographies of Louis XVI

Post  May on Tue Nov 29, 2011 9:01 pm

What do you know of the background and political sympathies of the Coursacs? There is an evident bias in their work (against Marie-Antoinette, especially) which prompts me to ask.
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The Coursacs

Post  Elena on Tue Nov 29, 2011 9:42 pm

With the Coursacs, EVERYTHING is Louis, and for them Marie-Antoinette only dragged him down as she plotted against him. I don't know why they think that except that the deviousness of Marie-Antoinette seems to be a French way of looking at things, even in the days of Versailles.

From Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_and_Pierrette_Girault_de_Coursac
Their works over nearly 30 years write that the king was never governed by his wife. His education was intellectually very complete. He had several lines which he followed throughout his reign, such as preventing civil war and anything that might trigger it. He was never governed by his ministers and during the French Revolution he pursued a consistent policy, playing the game that had been forced on him. Marie-Antoinette's policy during this period was followed without his knowledge. The letters requesting help from foreign sovereigns and presented as from him were fakes from the queen and his entourage and the armoire de fer was a pure invention of certain revolutionaries.

Some of the theories of the Coursacs are quite bizarre. For instance, David Jordan in The King's Trial explains how the Coursacs theorized that Marie-Antoinette was planning to escape without Louis, of which there is no basis.
http://books.google.com/books?id=s__iS_KF8jwC&pg=PR17&lpg=PR17&dq=coursacs&source=bl&ots=ckZt_beqju&sig=8D1FPHka4ltDV6SDlK0h2lXo3DA&hl=en&ei=OHXVTrrXL-Ld0QGTm9yFAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=coursacs&f=false

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Re: Best Biographies of Louis XVI

Post  May on Thu Dec 01, 2011 12:46 am

Don't they also have weird theories of Marie-Antoinette having miscarriages, procured by her Austrian doctor, during the early years of her marriage?

I just wondered what the Coursacs' political leanings might be (in general, not only regarding the Revolution), and whether these might explain their great animosity to the Queen. They seem anti-Habsburg to say the least.
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Re: Best Biographies of Louis XVI

Post  Mata Hari on Thu Dec 01, 2011 12:55 am

They have a lot of weird theories. cyclops They also think that Marie-Antoinette was deliberately refusing Louis in the bedchamber. No The website dedicated to their work is quite royalist. http://roilouis16.free.fr/ I gather that they feel about Marie-Antoinette and the Austrians the same way that Madame Adelaide did. affraid Suspect

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Re: Best Biographies of Louis XVI

Post  Elena on Tue Nov 12, 2013 12:16 am

Here is an astute book review by Anna Gibson on Louis XVI and the French Revolution.
http://vivelaqueen.blogspot.com/2013/11/review-louis-xvi-and-french-revolution.html
Where, in the annals of history, does Louis XVI lie? He is often dismissed as a stupid and weak king--even a tyrant--who deserved his bloody end. But what was the true character of Louis XVI? How did his personal characteristics and actions affect his life--and the fate of the French monarchy, the revolution and the nation itself?

Despite its title, Louis XVI and the French Revolution by Alison Johnson is more focused on studying the king's personal character than his role in the revolution. Johnson, who quotes heavily from Louis XVI's contemporaries, uses mainly primary sources for her discussion of the private character of a decidedly public figure.

Who was Louis XVI? Unlike his wife, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI did not leave behind an extensive amount of correspondence that might give us a better glimpse into his private thoughts. Subsequently, many of the impressions we can make of Louis XVI's personality come from the impressions he made on other people. Accounts from the Abbé de Véri, comte de Maurepas, Lord Storemont, Gouverneur Morris--and more--are abundant in this new study and offer a fresh glimpse into the life and character of his much-maligned king.

One of the themes apparent in Johnson's book is to rectify some of the more popular conceptions of Louis XVI, such as the popular depiction of Louis XVI as an intellectually shallow man. Even the comte de Saint-Priest, who of the king said that "never was a man less fit to reign," admitted that Louis XVI might "have filled other roles" in life because he was "well-versed in literature, knew several languages, had some astronomical knowledge, and had an extensive knowledge of geography and marine affairs." Louis was also heavily involved in scientific endeavors, such as the exploration of the comte de Lapérouse.

Many aspects of the king's character as it related to his family, his people and his desire to reform and improve the government of France are discussed in the book. Johnson has included examples from many contemporary journals, memoirs and letters which reveal a more complex view of Louis XVI than is usually held in historical study--together, it reveals a man who was intellectually gifted, driven by justice, kind, humble, and who had a sincere personal care for his people--but who was, ultimately, the right kind of king at the wrong time.

Despite the book's title, I do feel as if the book is more of an analysis of the king's public and private character rather than an analysis of his role in the revolution itself. I do think this aspect of the book is very worthwhile because it does reveal aspects of the king's character that are often ignored or overlooked in other studies about him.

At the same time, however, I feel that the study of the book is somewhat lopsided. Contrary to the title, I feel like the book focuses more on the king's character and behavior prior to the revolution and, subsequently, there were some missed opportunities for a deeper look at the king's behavior during the revolutionary years.

For example, the Manifesto he left behind before the royal family's failed flight to Montmedy is mentioned only in passing: "To complicate matters, when he escaped he had left behind him a letter enumerating his grievances against the revolutionaries and disavowing various decrees to which he had been forced to acquiesce, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy."
The Manifesto was written at a time when the king believed himself just hours away from living under what he felt was the threatening pressure of Paris--but the book does not even quote the Manifesto at all, much less look at how it may have represented Louis' true thoughts.

I also felt that the book sometimes unfairly portrayed certain other figures of the revolution, in particular Robespierre--in a book that is attempting to shake off the undeserved popular beliefs surrounding Louis XVI, it was unusual to see another person painted with broad strokes based on popular misconceptions.

Despite these two issues, however, I do think that Johnson's book adds something significant to the study of Louis XVI that many other books have ignored or only briefly touched: a more intricate, deeper look at his personal character that can help fill in the cracks of readers or historians who are trying to get a clearer picture of this man, this king, who once ruled all of France.

I recommend this book as part of a study of Louis XVI, particularly due to the abundance of primary source material used in the book.

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