I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Da Capo Press on September 2nd, 2014
In 1785, a sensational trial began in Paris that would divide the country and captivate Europe. A leading Catholic cardinal and scion of one of the most distinguished families in France stood accused of forging the queen’s signature to obtain the most expensive piece of jewelry in Europe: a 2,800-carat diamond necklace. Where were the diamonds? Was the cardinal innocent? Was, for that matter, the queen? The revelations from the trial would bedevil the French monarchy as the country descended into a bloody revolution.
In How to Ruin a Queen, award-winning author Jonathan Beckman tells of political machinations and enormous extravagance; of kidnappings, prison breaks, and assassination attempts; of hapless French police in disguise, reams of lesbian pornography, and a duel fought with poisoned pigs. It is a detective story, a courtroom drama, a tragicomic farce, and a study of credulity and self-deception in the Age of Enlightenment
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace is an extremely fascinating historical scandal that, given its exceptionally ill timing in the critical climate of 18th century France, had profound, far reaching consequences. The conspiracy surrounding a diamond necklace estimated to be worth approximately 2 million livre, and the subsequent fallout of public trials ultimately galvanized the incensed citizens of France, and can arguably be identified as one of the final catalysts for the subsequent coup and regicide of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. If you’re not familiar with the bizarre scandal, have a wiki link. If I get into a full explanation, this review will be longer than anyone cares to read.
The Diamond Necklace Affair’s incredible complexity and unbelievable key players has always drawn historical interest. It is a purely bizarre and absurd event, involving mysterious metaphysics, prostitutes impersonating royals, collusion of hugely influential figures, lies, intrigue, assassination attempts, and much more that suggest imaginative fiction rather than actual historical events.
Unsurprisingly, the event has also drawn public attention with in the film, The Affair of the Necklace. However, the public representations never tell the whole truth.
In How to Ruin a Queen, Jonathan Beckman attempts to provide that truth. He explores the scandal from far before even the origin of the conspiracy to the extensive public trial, and contextualizes the event within the vacillating unpredictable French political climate. Beckman explores the zeitgeist influences that primed the event for such catastrophic reaction, and reflects on the legacy that these deceptive conspirators have left behind in the Reign of Terror that was to follow.
What I loved the most about Jonathan Beckman’s approach to this event was his in-depth analysis of the pivotal conspirator, Jeanne de Valois and her developmental life. In my reading experience, he is the first to evaluate Jeanne’s pre-court experience and past behavioural patterns in enough detail to cast a wholly educated picture on who this woman was. Because the Diamond Necklace Affair was such a widely discussed issue, opinions on Jeanne’s character have been vastly divided. In the public opinion, Jeanne was a royal scapegoat, in the wrong place at the wrong time to suffer for the royals’ excessive, extravagent, profligate lifestyle. Others argued that Jeanne was an avaricious, self interested courtier, but considering her casting as a victim in popular renditions, it is evident which opinion still prevails. However, what we can glean from Beckman’s analysis is that Jeanne was a user and a manipulator who became skilled at creating opportunities for social and financial gratification. Jeanne habitually cast herself in the role of victim, yet had a clear history of overstaying welcomes, feigning illnesses and retreating when a situation no longer served her. Beckman makes it clear that Jeanne played an active integral role in the deception, and very likely was the main agitator.
However, Beckman also doesn’t make excuses for the involvement of the other conspirators, for its clear that Jeanne did not act alone. Beckman delves thoroughly into the backgrounds of blood prince Cardinal Louis Rohan, the ‘main target’, Nicolas de la Motte, Jeanne’s husband, Riteaux Villette, who also arguably played a substantial role in forgery, Count Cagliostro, the mesmer and mystic, and even the performer and prostitute Nicole d’Olivia, who had impersonated the Queen to gain Rohan’s trust.
Despite the strong and fair placement of blame on the conspirators, Beckman does not simply end his analysis there. Addressing who is truly at fault for the scandal in itself does not explain why the public reacted so strongly. Here, he explores the weakness of the monarchy and its lack of touch with the people to explain why,though the incident in question had little or nothing to do with the royal family, Antoinette was still held responsible. He explains why, in such a precarious environment of poverty and radical thinking, Antoinette was seen as being guilty of excess, self indulgence, and apathy for the common good. Although he clearly maintains the more academically accepted belief that Antoinette was more naive than malicious, he doesn’t defend the state of the monarchy that ultimately lead to its overthrow.
Overall, Beckman’s treatment of the Diamond Necklace Affair is invigorating, strongly persuasive, and yet reasonable – which is much to be said for an evaluation of an event that is at its core, bizarre and unreasonable. This is not a biased approach against any sole individual, rather to detail a much richer perspective, and to contextualize just how a diamond necklace could completely change world history.