Nancy’s Letter to the Editor of the New York Times Book Review

To the editor of the New York Times Book Review,

Caroline Weber’s self-serving, error-filled review of my book, in which she focuses on the minutiae of whether or not Marie Antoinette had an affair, as though In the Shadow of the Empress was about that one point and not about Maria Theresa, three of her remarkable daughters, and the entire 18th century, demands a response.  There’s no way to address all of Weber’s misstatements here so I will confine myself to some of the more egregious examples.

If Weber had read more than the genealogical chart and a footnote on page 251, she would have seen that Marie Antoinette’s second son was almost certainly conceived during the week that the queen was at the Petit Trianon, planning and throwing a late night party for the king of Sweden and his entourage, which included Count Fersen.  Fersen had at that point been away for 10 months and in addition to coming to the party was known to be a regular visitor to the Petit Trianon whenever he was in town.  Louis XVI, on the other hand, was not at the Petit Trianon that entire week, as he followed his regular schedule, which included going to bed alone in his room at the palace of Versailles at precisely 11 o’clock every night, as attested to by Madame Campan.  So it’s difficult to see how he could have been the father.  That’s not gossip or fake news.  That’s biology and geography.

With regard to the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Weber feels the need to demean the specialist I quoted who has thirty years’ experience at Yale New Haven hospital dealing with children with just this sort of behavior.  The quote my expert used—and she is in fact an expert, no matter what a fashion historian thinks—referred to the DSM 5.  The DSM 5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.  Weber also neglected to note that I cited the Mayo Clinic’s definition of ASD, which is the layman’s version of the DSM 5.  Additionally, Weber pretends that I used this diagnosis to say that Louis could not procreate with his wife.  That’s just false and she would have known it if she had read the book. What I did say was that Louis had to have the act of consummation explained to him by his brother-in-law, a fact for which there is primary source documentation. 

Finally, to the newly decrypted letters.  Yes, the New York Times quoted someone who cringingly compared the language to a “kissy-face emoji.” But there were plenty of others, including Anne Michelin, co-author of the paper published in the journal of Science Advances, who thought differently. In fact, queens did not regularly use the language of love to single men who were not their husbands.  That’s because they knew if they did so that they took the great risk of being charged with adultery and punished, as happened to George I’s wife, Sophie Dorothea.

All Weber has against all of this is a two-decades’ old quote from a secondary source and a lot of denial.  In fact, she cannot come up with a single crumb of legitimate, primary source documentation that refutes anything I wrote, not that that will matter to her.  Her judgmental, Victorian attitude towards the queen’s adultery, in addition to being unsupported by the data, is perverse.   Marie Antoinette, through no fault of her own, was trapped in a passionless marriage. It is not shameful, as Weber implies, that she found love and fulfillment with another man; it is human, and completely understandable.

What is most distressing, however, is that, during a period when the New York Times is actively encouraging a more modern, enlightened view of American history, the paper would allow a reviewer to trumpet such an ignorant, antiquated, and disrespectful view of those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the caring professionals who work with them.

At the opening of my book, in one of the pages Weber did not bother to review, I warned that Marie Antoinette’s story had been told so often that she was in danger of being mythologized.  Never have I been proven correct so quickly.