I like to think of Kathryn Davis as the love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll, with a splash of Nabokov, Brontë, and Angela Carter in the gene pool. Gorging herself on language, Davis spews forth disorienting tales which seem to have escaped from Alice’s rabbit hole. Boundaries between past and present are leaky; ornate fantasy mingles with mundane reality. In 1988’s Labrador, for instance, two sisters are regularly visited by angels and demons, while in Hell (1998), a little girl’s dollhouse comes to life.
In Davis’s novels, characters are haunted by traces of history that intrude on the present. Hell is her tour de force, a topsy-turvy anti-narrative that juxtaposes the domesticated misery of a 1950s family with the excesses of 19th-century master chef Antonin Caréme and Victorian household expert Edwina Moss. The phrase “Something is wrong in the house” runs throughout the book, alluding to some obscure metaphysical mystery that has no solution. The Walking Tour (1999), another eccentric thriller, takes place in the dystopic near-future. Susan, its narrator, has dedicated her life to unraveling the puzzling death of her mother, immersing herself in old letters, diaries, and court transcripts. In composing a biography of her parents’ life, she tries to create meaning out of the chaos of her world.
The Walking Tour runs circles around biography, whereas Versailles, Davis’s fifth and latest novel, follows the lifeline of Marie Antoinette with surprising faithfulness. Unlike Susan, who dwells in the past, Antoinette lives for the moment and fatally closes her eyes to the onrush of history. Versailles buoyantly recounts the queen’s life (as narrated by her own soul), starting with her placid childhood as the ignored youngest child of the Austrian empress through her marriage at 14 to the future King Louis XVI and finally her gory death by guillotine.
Marie Antoinette’s name signifies the ultimate rich bitch, one so selfish she triggered the French Revolution. During her life and after death, she was publicly reviled in pamphlets that accused her of promiscuity, gambling, lesbianism, stupidity, spying, greed, and incest. Historical revisionists (such as Antonia Fraser in her passionately sympathetic biography of last year) argue that most of these, including the famous “Let them eat cake” speech, were just scurrilous gossip—that the populace projected their rage and frustration onto the queen’s body, using her attempts at pleasure and individuality as further incitement to revolt. Versailles falls into this revisionist camp, though with Davis’s voluminous imagination, it’s hard to imagine her inhabiting anything so limiting as a camp. She uses the bare but resonant facts of the case as an outline; inside Antoinette’s skeleton she sets off a fireworks display of voracious desire and unfulfilled wishes.
Neither slut nor dodo, Davis’s queen is a sheltered young thing adrift in a palace where there’s nothing to do but indulge: in dancing, truffles, jewels, pretty dresses. Her mother sold her off as a pawn to solidify Austria’s position with France, but neither Antoinette nor her husband have any interest in political power, preferring more sensual pursuits. The novel never attempts to transform this historical villainess into a proto-feminist heroine—that would be too simplistic—but she does allow the joyousness of the queen’s immersion in pleasure to coexist with her willful refusal to acknowledge the growing discontent beyond the palace gates. She makes Antoinette intelligent enough to be held accountable—and evasive: “On that May morning when a crowd of peasants poured through the gates at the Place d’Armes . . . with their rumbling stomachs and loaves of moldy bread, who knows why I didn’t see among them the invisible hand of the future, wielding a bloody knife? It wasn’t because I was too stupid. It wasn’t even because I was unwilling to face facts. No, it was because I was completely uninterested in food . . . and off somewhere else, sequestered as usual, no doubt taking a walk.”
This Antoinette has a talent for distancing herself from the reader—a quality that would have been useful for a woman in her situation. Like a participant in some 18th-century Real World, she is observed all the time. Members of the court crowd into her room to watch her eat breakfast, get dressed, even give birth. She describes the sensation of sitting for a portrait, feeling:
an almost unendurable sense of my self, of the surfaces of Antoinette, her eyes trying not to blink, her lips growing more and more pursed and dry, her tongue dying to lick them. And then just when I’d think I couldn’t bear to sit there like that one minute longer, I’d suddenly find myself on the outside looking in, a traveler in a carriage passing an apparently deserted house at nightfall. . . . yet somewhere deep inside, in the deepest darkest corner of the cellar, there would be a little sleeping animal who would prick up its ears.
Struggling to preserve some small fragment of private identity, she withdraws into memories of her youth, captured in Davis’s glimmering prose. As the novel rushes toward its inevitable conclusion, Antoinette becomes more vague, dropping only passing mentions of crucial historical episodes—like the Diamond Necklace Affair and the peasant women’s march on the palace—that may leave the reader turning to history books in search of more detail.
Running alongside Antoinette’s life story is a guided tour of Versailles, a place that owes its existence to the monstrous whims of long-dead kings. For the queen it’s both a cocoon and a bell jar; she sometimes imagines the spirits of scheming courtiers and brokenhearted mistresses bouncing around its grand hallways. The palace becomes a lens with which to view the royal decadence and hierarchies of the time, but in the end, Davis uses it mainly as a flamboyant, gorgeously described backdrop. All of her attentions are focused on Antoinette, scolding her just once for her self-absorption: “Was ever a woman so sad, ever a woman so hopeless? Yes, Antoinette, probably all of them, if truth be told. Brave women, stuffing rags in their shoes, foraging for bread in the streets of Paris.”
Marie Antoinette’s life is a narrative set in stone—punctuated by that final invitation to a beheading—and that makes Versailles less of an adventure than some of Davis’s previous novels. But for an inventive writer, even a life as gossiped about and overanalyzed as Antoinette’s is still crammed with dark, unanswerable questions that human beings, whether queen or peasant, can’t stop asking: “As if it were a mystery, and there were a way to solve it. As if it were possible to figure out who slipped up, and where.”