Historical fiction can be tough to write. It is not enough to simply research a time period and know the characters; that might make the genre seem like something easy to write, because most of one's work in character-building seems to be done already. After all, most readers who are going to pick up a book of historical fiction already know about that time period, and so the major characters have already made places for themselves in the imagination of the readers. In the case of Carolly Erickson's novel The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, there is a set of characters who people already know about after studying history. This novel is supposed to be a hidden diary of the last queen of the Bourbons; however, it actually adds nothing to the imagination that one could not imagine from reading about the queen on Wikipedia. In contrast to other successful historical novels, such as the works of Matthew Pearl, this novel relies too heavily on the audience's existing knowledge of history and, as a result, produces a boring series of diary entries. As a result, this novel not only ends up failing to do much to recreate the history of the period, but also fails to stir much in the way of imagining the events that history has forgotten.
Given what one knows about Marie Antoinette, a potentially secret diary could, at least imaginatively, reveal a great deal about what is left untold in her real story. The alleged affair with Count Fersen, the affair of the necklace, and even the queen's own opinion about the many rumors that flew around France about her private life are not found in the entries. Instead, there is a lot of fluff written about people who did not even exist in her real life. Eric, her servant, and the villainous Amelie, do not come from history, and their stereotypical portrayal does not add much to the story at all. Instead of focusing on bland imaginings, the author could have gone into the details of her life. For example, her alleged advice to the starving of Paris – “Let them eat cake” – never passed her lips. Indeed, it was the wife of Louis XIV, Maria Theresa, who was first accused of saying it, almost a century before (Covington). Not even the detailed plots that Marie Antoinette continued to weave throughout her imprisonment at the hands of the French Revolution make much of a peep in the novel. For example, during the first phase of her imprisonment, she tried to get the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II (her brother) to intervene on their behalf, with no luck. She also tried to manipulate the country into a war against Austria in the spring of 1792. This stratagem failed as well (Lewis). For a work of historical fiction, there is scant history involved in the tale at all.
The characters that do appear in The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette are flat and bland, as well. Louis XVI, never treated kindly in history or literature, is portrayed here as a real ditz. The Duchess of Polignac, who in real life was among Marie Antoinette's closest friends, only plays a very small role. The Princess de Lamballe, another person who was in the Bourbons’ court, does appear quite frequently, but until the end of the book she is just called “Lou Lou” without any sort of clue as to her actual identity. Eric is an older servant on whom the young Marie Antoinette forms a harmless crush; however, his wife, Amelie, gets mad anyway, and her jealousy makes the story really boring. Instead of a different view on a time in history that has already been well documented (but still gathers a great deal of interest), this is just the author saying what most people know about the queen: she was bland, she was superficial, and she had little interesting to say, at least that has been recorded publicly. It is not her fault, of course, that she became queen over one of the most powerful nations in the world when she was just a teenager, wed to a king who was a teen himself. It is difficult to imagine that the actual people who lived out this drama were as flat and boring as they are portrayed in this book.
In stark contrast to The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is a really good book of historical fiction, Matthew Pearl's The Technologists, an historical novel set in Boston just after the Civil War. Using the social forces that were swirling around the Northeast at the close of the Civil War and the beginning of the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution, Pearl imagines a mad ex-soldier helping an even less sane scion of industry to destroy the entire city of Boston, simply because of some injustices that began to bubble up during that bloody conflict. In this book, the theme of Science as villain – still an article of faith for many in the 19th century – is the ribbon that connects the romance, the fisticuffs, and the bravery (Parker). It is the intriguing characters, whose interest in technology for its own sake gives them a motivation far stronger than anything a conversation in a salon can provide for one of the last descendants of the Sun King. After all, in the writing of historical fiction, it is not enough to copy the history for the reader; one must lure the reader into the time machine of one's own creation, and then transport him back until he walks the very streets himself.
Covington, Richard. “Marie Antoinette.” Smithsonian November 2006.
Erickson, Carolly. The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. London: St. Martin's Griffin, c2006. Print.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Marie Antoinette.”
Parker, James. “Science Will Save Us.” New York Times 24 February 2012.