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In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters

Review

In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters

IN THE SHADOW OF THE EMPRESS is an impressive and entertaining book that traverses time and the map of Europe, following the lives of four extraordinary women: Empress Maria Theresa and her three daughters: Maria Christina, Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette. Nancy Goldstone covers large swaths of history and in the process brings readers into contact with Frederick the Great, Lord Nelson, Napoleon and many more European luminaries.

Arriving at the start of the 18th century, Maria Theresa was a woman born to destiny. Sitting atop the Habsburg Empire, she bore 16 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. Goldstone does a great job of illustrating what this means to an imperial dynasty: marriages of alliance for the defense and growth of the empire. The modern reader may be excused for believing that Maria Theresa, given the existential problems she faced, spent an inordinate amount of time and energy marrying her children in the interest of her empire. In the 1700s, however, these efforts were seen as a solution, not a diversion.

"IN THE SHADOW OF THE EMPRESS is a compelling read. Using Maria Theresa as a familial anchor point was a brilliant idea.... With such a storied family, one can only hope that a sequel is in the works."

With so many children to “place,” Maria Theresa was a matchmaker par excellence. Marrying them to enemies or trading pieces of property here and there was always about the family. On one page the family would speak of the love their people had for them. Next, when faced with invasion, they were loading ships filled with jewels and clothes --- all personal belongings --- in what can only be seen as selfish and self-serving. Even the child-rearing dynamic was aimed at furthering the dynasty, with children slotted for either a kingdom or the convent.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are the challenges that the Empress and her daughters confronted for their survival. While over a lifetime there were many, some stand out as imperative. For Maria Theresa it was Frederick and the rise of the Prussian nation. It was Napoleon for Maria Carolina, the French Revolution for Marie Antoinette, and for poor Maria Christina it was, sadly, her brother Joseph.

Goldstone makes it clear that Maria Theresa fixed upon Frederick early as the most grave threat to her empire. She notes that the Empress “identified the king of Prussia as her mortal enemy and was keenly aware that he would take advantage of any misstep, any lapse in vigilance or downturn in fortune to strike again. She was determined to thwart him and reclaim Silesia.”

While her fight with Frederick was not her only battle, Goldstone uses this relationship to flesh out all that was compelling about the Empress. When Prussia took Silesia, instead of capitulating as she was pressured to do, Maria Theresa went against her advisors and gambled on the unruly and unpredictable Hungarians. She traveled to Pressburg and participated in a grueling coronation ceremony that is well worth the read. So when most of Europe was aligned against Austria and preparing an attack on Vienna, the fearsome Hungarians came to her defense.

Buffeted on all sides, winning and losing in the constant roil of battle, the Empress fought tooth and nail to maintain her lands when many advised surrender. She insisted that courage was needed, and now was a time of sacrifice. With great finality, she exclaimed, “You will say that I am cruel, and it is true...but at this moment I close my heart to pity.” The young woman, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 23 (while pregnant), was sending a clear message to the king of Prussia --- she was not just another petticoat.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE EMPRESS is a compelling read. Using Maria Theresa as a familial anchor point was a brilliant idea. Through these four women, readers are treated to a Forrest Gump-like journey through one of the most dynamic periods of European history. With such a storied family, one can only hope that a sequel is in the works.

Reviewed by John Vena on October 8, 2021

In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters
by Nancy Goldstone

  • Publication Date: September 21, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316449334
  • ISBN-13: 9780316449335