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Vive la révolution!

The signs couldn't have been clearer, so why didn't Marie-Antoinette flee?

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In high school, I learned that those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat History in the summer. An affecting new novel about the French revolution, by Chantal Thomas, encourages me to hope that the day must not be far off when desperately bored students will storm the bastille of textbook publishers and usher in a new era of history education. It's time heads rolled, instead of resting on the desk.

"Farewell, My Queen," translated by Moishe Black, takes us to Versailles on July 14, 15, and 16, 1789, a particularly bad time to be caught playing croquet en haute couture.

Though 21 years have passed, Madame Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a reader for Marie-Antoinette, can still recall those frantic 72 hours when news of revolt sent the decadent court royals scurrying away from their king and queen.

Thomas is a feminist historian who wrote a book in 1999 called "The Wicked Queen," which argued that the popular view of Marie-Antoinette is the result of "a misogynist demonization of woman's power." Offered critical jargon like that, most of us would rather eat cake, of course, but by analyzing revolutionary era pamphlets, Thomas demonstrated that the young queen imported from Austria never had a chance to defeat the prejudices arrayed against her.

"Farewell, My Queen," which won France's prestigious Prix Femina, is hardly an apology for Marie- Antoinette, but it's a fascinating portrayal of the truly bizarre world in which she lived and the way people cling to untenable positions in the face of violent progress.

The details surrounding Versailles are irresistibly symbolic for fiction, and Thomas strings them through this ominous narrative for maximum effect. A quarter of a mile long with 1,300 rooms, the spectacular palace sits in a fetid swamp that nauseates all the residents with the smell of rotting flesh. Armies of rats scurry through the halls at night chewing away at the furniture and clothing. Nonetheless, the aristocrats fortunate enough to orbit the reluctant king and queen carry on with the ceremonies of The Perfect Day, designed by Louis XIV a hundred years earlier. They live in the nucleus from which all power and fashion emanate, "the model par excellence toward which the eyes of every capital city were turned."


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