If “Let them eat cake” sums up your knowledge of the French Revolution, a new novel aims to fill in the blanks. The Queen’s Lover, by Francine du Plessix Gray, tells the story of the historical Count Axel von Fersen, a Swedish nobleman who falls in love with young Marie Antoinette, goes away to war, and returns to court in its final days. Presented as the count’s memoir, with annotations by his loving but clear-eyed sister, his life reveals the turmoil of France, Sweden and America in the late 1770s.
Gray, an award-winning biographer, chose to write the book as fiction instead of biography because fiction “has the advantage of allowing the writer to move beyond bare fact and create a more immediate and sensuous environment,” according to an interview with Library Journal.
This is not a new point of view for Gray. Years ago, when The Paris Review asked her if she saw herself primarily as a journalist, she said:
I look on my work as a total entity, with each form influencing the others. Even if nonfiction … is my best form, it’s because I have the discipline of observing life in a novelistic way—listening to the nuances in people’s conversations, observing the flower here, and everywhere the crooked little edge of lace.
That historian’s eye is evident in the best novels. It’s what makes fiction as excellent a source for “learning something” as non-fiction is, as I argued with a non-fiction-only friend the other day.
The Queen’s Lover releases from Penguin Press in June. Thanks to Gray’s comments above and BookPage’s listing as one of their “30 most anticipated books of 2012,” I’m first on the wait list for it at my local library.