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 - Jasmijn Groot -

Sometimes, we just don't stop to think enough about the fact that turbulent events in our history were followed by times of uncertainty and chaos for its disadvantaged participants. Even less often do we talk about how such individuals experienced the situation they found themselves in. Tima and time again, I have had to tell curious people when the Battle of Waterloo took place. It's the most popular question you get when you're a historian. But we never talk about how Napoleon Bonaparte was on the run for a month after his defeat. Or how the isolating banishment on Saint Helena, which is more than 1800 kilometers away from its nearest coast, had a detrimental effect on his mental health. Many of us have learned about the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the execution of the last tsar family a year later. Only few are told anything on how they endured their captivity in the meantime, even though both Nicholas and Alexandra have kept diaries during until their tragic end.


The young Dutch author Michiel B.L. Korte came across a number of interesting, but underexposed facts about another well-known royal family, namely the family of King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793) and his wife Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). It is far from common knowledge that the couple adopted four more civilian children in addition to their biological ones: Armand Gagné (1771-1792), an orphan who was almost run over by the queen’s carriage at the age of five; Jean Almicar (1781-1796), a Senegalese enslaved boy who was freed by Marie Antoinette after being given to her as a gift; ‘Zoë’ Jeanne Louise Victoire (1778-after 1792), the daughter of an usher working for the couple, who was adopted after becoming an orphan; and Ernestine de Lambriquet (1778-1813), the daughter of a chambermaid, who was welcomed into the royal family after the death of her mother.

Out of the four adopted children, Ernestine is the one we seem to know the most about. But to Korte's consternation, there was no literature at all about this remarkable young woman, who experienced the past from such a special position. He therefore took it upon himself to let her to play the leading role in his debut novel Ernestine. In it, he not only examines the world of a humble servant's daughter who is taken into the world of the aristocracy, but he also lets her act as a fly-on-the-wall in his narrative on the most turbulent years in France's history.

French Revolution

The French Revolution, which according to historians took place from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 until the introduction of the Consulat in 1799, was a period of unrest for everyone in France. Korte's story, however, reminds the reader that this was just as true of those who were seen by the movement itself as the bad guys, or by modern historians as the ignorant autocratic rulers who had cast their own tragic fate. Their adoptive daughter Ernestine is the perfect medium to alter that image a little.

Admittedly, she was of simple origin and as such could have been susceptible to the anti-monarchical views of the revolution – as did her adoptive brother Armand, who reportedly harboured republican sympathies. But at a young age, Ernestine was chosen by Marie-Antoinette herself to act as a playmate for her eldest daughter Charlotte, which was a practice that was common in most European royal houses. With the knowledge he has at his disposal, Korte paints the picture of a girl who loved the royal family deeply. Through the eyes of Ernestine, Korte instills in his audience sympathy for Louis and Marie-Antoinette in their last years of life, which must have been particularly emotional, according to the story. In Korte's version of history, their lives were marked by chaos, loss and destruction. While the people of France saw their wildest dreams of a better life within reach, for Louis and Marie Antoinette everything they had ever known collapsed completely and irrevocably.


Nevertheless, Korte brings some nuance to his portrayal of the French monarchs. The author outlines interesting relationships between the adopted children and the members of the royal family, introducing creative ideas into the whole. The most interesting is how much the realities of the noble characters and Ernestine differ. Ernestine knows the conditions of peasants, workers and servants, because she has lived them. Charlotte, on the other hand, is shielded from it and thinks that the surroundings of the picturesque Trianon are a realistic reflection of everyday French agriculture. Marie Antoinette, meanwhile, seems to know better, but doesn't want to face it. No wonder the people want to see their heads on spikes, you might think while reading. Pretty soon, though, Ernestine's increasing urge of wanting to belong to the royal family, will convince you that they were normal people too, just like us.

It makes Ernestine an entertaining glimpse into the uncertain and terrifying last years of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, through the eyes of their adopted daughter Ernestine, which, although fictitious, offers a nice emotional alternative to their well-known history.


Image: M.B.L. Korte (2022) book cover of Ernestine by Michiel B.L. Korte.


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