Author: Jonathan Beckman
Rating: 4 stars
I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.
During the last years of Ancien Regime France, a conwoman is obsessed with the rights supposedly due to her as a descendant of the house of Valois. She wants money and power and the ear of the Queen, and when she cannot have them through legitimate means, she lies. A lot.
Meanwhile, a cardinal from another old, aristocratic family has been spurned by Marie Antoinette and has been trying to get back into her good graces for years. Otherwise, he is sure, he will never gain the prominent political place he feels sure he deserves. He latches onto the conwoman, who is first his lover, and then his dependent. And one day, she tells him that she has secret messages to him from the Queen.
How to Ruin a Queen is a difficult story. There are a lot of pieces, and those pieces often don’t make a lot of sense. How an opportunistic ploy for the conwoman, Jeanne de La Motte, to get her hands on a diamond necklace (that she could then dismantle and sell in pieces) turned into a trial about slandering the Queen’s royal name and became one of the precipitating events of the French Revolution is complex and confusing. I’m still not sure I understand it all. But I’m also not sure that it matters.
Beckman is a very engaging writer. How to Ruin a Queen frequently reads like a novel, and it’s worth checking out for the characterization of these people alone. Beckman also provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late eighteenth century, from the culture of letter writing to the birth of freemasonry. It’s not a time period or setting I am overly familiar with, so I appreciated how vividly it was brought to life.
I felt that Beckman was a little too sympathetic to and forgiving of the cardinal, Rohan, characterizing him as bumbling and gullible throughout and excusing away most of his actions. Jeanne, meanwhile, came across as a vicious, greedy huckster. The perceptions of both often felt a little unbalanced, a little extreme, though I had no previous knowledge of their history and of course can’t say for sure either way. But I think the truth of Jeanne and Rohan lies somewhat more in the middle ground, that Beckman probably exaggerated them. That makes for better drama but potentially detracts from the history. I really enjoyed the story, but I’m not sure how swayed I am by Beckman’s analysis of it.
Still, particularly if you are interested in the Revolution, you will find a lot to like in How to Ruin a Queen. It’s accessible even when it’s confusing, and offers a fascinating look at a footnote from history.