Heat Level 1 – Sweet
REVIEW RATING: 4 STARS
A captivating novel of rich spectacle and royal scandal, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow spans fifteen years in the fateful reign of Marie Antoinette, France’s most legendary and notorious queen.
Paris, 1774. At the tender age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne alongside her husband, Louis XVI. But behind the extravagance of the young queen’s elaborate silk gowns and dizzyingly high coiffures, she harbors deeper fears for her future and that of the Bourbon dynasty.
From the early growing pains of marriage to the joy of conceiving a child, from her passion for Swedish military attaché Axel von Fersen to the devastating Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Marie Antoinette tries to rise above the gossip and rivalries that encircle her. But as revolution blossoms in America, a much larger threat looms beyond the gilded gates of Versailles—one that could sweep away the French monarchy forever.
Review by Caz
This is the second book in a trilogy focusing on the life and reign of the doomed French queen. The first is and the final book – The Last October Sky – is, I believe, going to be published next year.
Days of Splendour, Days of Sorrow focuses on the years 1774-1798, and begins at the point where Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis, has just ascended the throne as Louis XVI.
The novel is written mostly in the first person which, as I mentioned in my review of The Second Empress isn’t my preferred narrative voice, especially in historical fiction, as it can lead to all manner of expository clumsiness and cliché. Here, however, it works, principally I think because the story is told using the past tense and the viewpoint is (for the most part) limited to Antoinette herself and what she observes, knows and thinks.
In that respect, I think Juliet Grey has done a superb job of getting into Marie Antoinette’s head; she is nineteen years old at the beginning of the book and is still in many senses a child, which is conveyed through the somewhat naïve voice the author uses for the character. Antoinette has been married for almost five years at the start of the book, and is still a virgin as Louis is unable to consummate their union. It becomes quickly apparent she feels her childlessness deeply, and that her (sometimes unwise) devotion to her friends, and her desire to rise above all in matters of fashion (and especially hairstyles!) are an attempt to redress that lack. so she tries to find other things to occupy her mind and time. She longs for a child, and she longs to have a sexual relationship with her husband, but not as a matter of lust – she just wants a marriage that is a marriage in every sense of the word.
I’m not well-versed in this period of history – like many, I know that Marie Antoinette didn’t say “let them eat cake!”, and that she was widely hated for her excesses in the time leading up to the revolution. I therefore found this book to be highly informative about her life and relationships, and it presents her as being very naïve and completely unaware of the fact that her own actions are responsible for the poor esteem in which she is held by so many of her subjects, both rich and poor. She is clearly making ill-advised friendships as well as allowing her modiste and coiffeur to gain undue influence and she runs up huge debts in order to pay for new gowns and increasingly extravagant “poufs”, as well as for the large number of parties, balls and masquerades she holds. She tells us how she can never wear the same gown twice, how she can’t wear gloves or other accessories more than an allotted number of times (and how her ladies all have the right to them after she has finished with them), and although she provides a justification for this as being dictated by the etiquette of the court, it nonetheless makes uncomfortable reading given what we know of her fate. She decides right from the start of her reign that her role as queen is to bring gaiety to the court and to set the tone of fashion, thus supporting her husband by upholding the position of the monarchy – but she has no concept of how much it costs – in both money and reputation. For example, early in the book, when Louis tells her that they need to economise, her idea of that is to hold a masquerade twice a month instead of once a week!
But for all that, she comes across, not as the heartless, frivolous figure she’s often painted, but as a young woman who, despite being groomed to be a queen, was nonetheless unprepared for the fact that every little thing she did would be scrutinized and provide fodder for gossips, and who was put into a highly pressurized situation with no support whatsoever. Grey paints a sympathetic portrait of Antoinette and presents her as a woman without a real place or purpose within the court, especially as she has been unable to fulfil the duty for which she came to France in the first place; to provide the King – and the country – with an heir. Denied motherhood, she finds other ways to fill the void in her life, but unfortunately, makes poor choices in her friends and develops a taste for high-stakes gambling.
Seven years after her marriage, Antoinette at last becomes pregnant, and during her pregnancy, she becomes reacquainted with Count Axel Fersen, a Swedish nobleman she had met briefly some years before. It’s obvious there had been some sort of spark between them, but no time or opportunity for things to progress further. But on his return to France, the pair spend a lot of time together both before and after the birth of Antoinette’s daughter, and fall deeply in love. But Antoinette is too moral a woman to countenance betraying her marriage vows or Louis, who has been unfailingly kind to her and of whom she is very fond.
Fersen departs once more, but returns years later, after the birth of the longed-for Dauphin, and they finally embark upon a sexual relationship. But Antoinette is torn between love and duty; her moral values are strong and she despises herself for having ‘fallen’ to the level of women such as Madame du Barry, whom she had previously scorned.
It was at this point that I started to think about what I was going to write in my review, and had decided that although Days of Splendour, Days of Sorrow is well-researched, informative and well-written – it hadn’t grabbed me and pulled me into the story. But about two-thirds of the way in, I finally got that “oh, damn, I have to stop reading now and do something else” feeling, which was the point where Antoinette became involved in the affair of the diamond necklace. It’s this last third of the novel which pushed my rating up to 4 stars; things go from bad to worse at an alarming rate until we reach the fateful month of July 1789 and the rumblings of discontent spill over into revolution.
I’ve already said that I think Grey has done an excellent job on pitching Antoinette’s voice; it’s immature and guileless while still managing to convey – between the lines – how poor her decisions are and how those she regards as friends are really just in it for what they can get; and I think that’s the real strength of this book. There is, however, what I consider to be one fairly big inconsistency with the narrative. The story is told completely from Antoinette’s PoV for the first quarter of the book – until one chapter suddenly jumps to the meeting between Antoinette’s brother (the Emperor of Austria) and Madame du Barry at which she (Antoinette) was not present, so instead suddenly, we switch to a third person narrative. This happens a few more times throughout the course of the book, and personally, I found it rather jarring, the one exception being in the telling of the affair of the necklace, when I felt the pace really picked up.
That said, I enjoyed the book overall and would also recommend reading the very imformative author’s note at the end. I think it’s definitely worth checking out the rest of the trilogy.
With thanks to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy for review.