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Antal Szerb: A királyné nyaklánca (The Queen’s Necklace)

In the introduction to this work, Szerb makes it very clear that this is not a novel. (I might have written a novel, and, I must confess, that idea tempted me for some time.) However, in a note found in his posthumous paper, he states that an acquaintance had read it as a novel. For that is exactly what I intended—to rescue the material from the layers of schoolroom dust and give it a living reality, thus moulding people’s tastes by making them want to read not just best-sellers but also the great works of so-called ‘literary history’. So what is it? Well, it is a work of history, written like a novel, with a cast of entirely real-life characters, so we might, in this day and age, call it historical fiction or we might call it popular history. Whichever we choose, I read it as a novel so here it is.

The book is based on a well-known historical event, at least one that was well-known in Szerb’s time but is probably less well-known now, namely the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, concerning a fraud involving a very expensive diamond necklace. Various famous historical characters were implicated but, in particular, Marie Antoinette, who loved jewellery, was thought to have been party to the fraud. This helped ruin her reputation and, in part, led to the French Revolution, because of disgust with the monarchy. Various famous people wrote about it, including Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Carlyle and Goethe, and several films have been made of it.

The necklace in question was made by two German jewellers based in Paris: Charles August Boehmer and Paul Bassenge. They had made various necklaces for the rich and, for this one, they collected, over a period of time, a large amount of splendid diamonds. It consisted of three chains of diamonds from which were suspended diamond medallions, the third and longest chain having several strands and ending in four diamond tassels. It should be pointed out that very, very few people ever saw this necklace. The jewellers hoped that Louis XV would purchase it for his mistress, the Comtesse du Barry. (Note that, on this point, as on several others, Szerb’s version is somewhat different from the Wikipedia one, linked to above. I have used Szerb’s version but, of course, I have no idea who is right.) Louis, however, died of smallpox and the Countess went into exile. The obvious potential new client was the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who had what Szerb calls an ungovernable passion for fine jewellery. However, though they offered it to her and she was eager to buy, she quite simply did not have the money. The sale price was approximately 160,000 livres, roughly equivalent to £7000 in those days and equal to around £750,000 in today’s currency (somewhat over US$1 million and a bit below €1 million). Indeed, the idea was to create not the most beautiful necklace ever made (apparently, it was not all that beautiful), but the most expensive.

Szerb gives us an excellent background to the political and economic situation in France at that time. The country was recovering from the disaster of the Seven Years War and things were picking up. However, for the aristocracy, there was always an issue of money. No aristocrat could possibly consider working. They either had money, borrowed money, stole money or sold themselves for money. We see this in one of the key players in the drama. She is the Countess de la Motte, married to an adventurer who claimed to be but almost certainly was not an aristocrat. She, however, was descended from the Valois, the royal family before the Bourbons, which had fallen on hard times. The couple are very much like Rawdon Crawley and Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and managed to beg, borrow, steal and cajole, and rarely paid their debts.

There were a few other key players in the drama. The fall guy was Cardinal de Rohan, an aristocrat who held numerous offices and was nominally rich but always seemed to be broke. (Szerb gives us many details on his finances and that of other aristocrats and the amount they spent, e.g. on wine, hats, horses and other frivolities is stupendous.) He had no sense of finance and no understanding of how venial people could be. He had had only one desire, to be admired by Marie Antoinette. He was appointed Ambassador to Vienna, a major post, and spent a huge amount of money (which he did not have), thereby upsetting Empress Maria Teresa by both showing off and upstaging her. She enlisted the support of her daughter to oppose him. Her daughter was, of course, Marie Antoinette. As a result there was no contact between the two. The other interesting and colourful character – Szerb tells us a lot about him – was Cagliostro. He actually played a very small role in the plot but was close to Rohan, and Jeanne de la Motte tried to blame him for the events surrounding the theft of the necklace. Szerb is clearly fascinated by him, as with other seemingly minor characters, such as Gustav III, King of Sweden, who made a habit of visiting France incognito and who, very much unlike the French monarchs, carried out a revolution in which he essentially overthrew the all-powerful Swedish nobility.

We follow the tale of the necklace in some detail, including how and why it was made, how the scammers set up and carried out the scam, how the plot unravelled and the legal and other consequences of the plot. One of the consequences, of course, turned out to be the French Revolution. It was as a result of this affair that the French really turned against Marie Antoinette. They were already against her because she had failed to produce an heir (not her fault; it was a problem with Louis XVI’s penis), because she was an Austrian (yet Louis XVI himself had relatively little French blood) and because she seemed haughty. However, this affair exacerbated the French hatred for her, though she was almost completely innocent. Szerb states that public opinion was (and is) much more powerful in France than in other countries and, once they have turned against you, you are doomed.

Szerb goes on to give other causes of the French Revolution. In particular, he states, it was not so much because of the vices of the Ancien Régime but their virtues. The then current aristocracy started to do what he calls, in French, s’encanailler and what we would probably call slumming it or, at least, behaving less like aristocrats and monarchs than both their forebears and than the manner they were expected to behave in. It is one of the ironies of revolutions that they often seem to start when things are getting better and, in this case, there clearly was some effort, however, paltry, to get closer to the people, to understand them more and to be less aristocratic. The Revolution broke out not because the Monarchy was especially tyrannical but because the last French kings were not tyrannical enough. They introduced arbitrary measures, but lacked the strength to see them through. There were no revolutions in other countries where abuses were far worse but where royal power remained strong, and perhaps one might have been averted in France too. However, Marie Antoinette’s affairs – according to Szerb they took place because she was bored by the lack of attention from her husband and, as a result, having no children to care for – seemed to very much upset the French populace, even though many of the alleged affairs almost certainly never took place.

Szerb shows a detailed knowledge of the necklace affair, of the political situation in France and the French royal family. He also has some interesting ideas about the rationale behind the whole exploit, its links to the current political situation and the ultimate causes of the French revolution. Not all of his ideas are conventional ones and some are decidedly contrarian. If you want to read a book on the subject that tells a lively tale but is also contemporary (to us), then try Jonathan Beckman’s How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne. However, if you want a book by an accomplished story-teller that reads as a novel but also encompasses serious history, then Szerb’s book is well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Magvető Könyvkiadó
First English translation 2009 by Pushkin Press