How do you decide where to begin and end each volume of the series?
Before I start—thank you so much for hosting me! I’m delighted to be here today.
The structure of my Marie Antoinette trilogy came to me fully formed, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, because there were six pivotal moments in Marie Antoinette’s life that seemed to be perfect places to begin and end each of the novels in the trilogy. The first, Becoming Marie Antoinette, a coming of age story, opens with the day she learns she is to become the bride of the dauphin of France, and ends with the day she becomes queen, eight years later. It seemed natural with the middle novel, Days Of Splendor, Days Of
Sorrow, to begin where the first one left off, with the very early days of Marie Antoinette’s reign, and to end it with a bang—when her world is upended by the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and the seminal events that immediately followed it. For the final book, originally titled The Last October Sky (evidently, this is going to change; stay tuned for a new title!) the narrative begins and ends during a pivotal event in the month of October. The third novel opens with the October 6, 1789 Parisian fishwives’ march on Versailles to demand bread. And it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to my readers that it will end on the tragic date of Marie Antoinette’s death, October 16, 1793.
What initially drew you to recreate the story of Marie Antoinette in a trilogy?
There is so much material there! For one thing, I firmly believe that she is the most maligned figure in history and it takes a lot of unraveling of the historical yarns that have been spun about her over the past 257 years to separate the truth from the propaganda and the fact from the fiction. And yes, even though I am writing historical fiction, I have tried to adhere to the historical record whenever possible (and have written Author’s Notes at the back of each book to explain my interpretations and to delineate where I have taken the novelist’s prerogative and let my imagination do the walking. One aspect of her life that is less well known is Marie Antoinette’s childhood in Austria and how she literally “became” Marie Antoinette from archduchess Maria Antonia, the 15th of Empress Maria Theresa’s 16 children. How she was literally given a makeover, both physically and academically in order to make her worthy in the eyes of the Bourbons to marry their heir. Many history books have reduced Marie Antoinette to a caricature, usually a tone-deaf, bubbleheaded spendthrift; and unfortunately, that is still how she is often perceived. She’s more popular than ever this year, but for all the wrong reasons. If I had a nickel for every politician who points a finger at his opponent and calls him (or his spouse) Marie Antoinette, or a journalist (who should be educated enough to know better) who does the same, I could afford a charming pied à terre in the Places des Vosges.
The notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which takes place in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, has so many twists and turns and players that it could easily have taken up a book of its own. And the final novel in the trilogy depicts some of the Revolutionary events that Marie Antoinette would not have witnessed, as well as some that she was compelled to attend, or forced to be a party to. The scope of the events of her life, which ended barely three weeks before her 38th birthday, is immense. The world as she knew it changed immeasurably during her lifetime, fairly brief as it was, and to have illustrated everything she endured before she came to France, her life as dauphine, and to chart the journey that brought her to the scaffold as well as to exonerate her by illuminating the mitigating circumstances that really were the causes of the French Revolution, needs time and space. If I had crammed everything into a single novel, I would have had to sacrifice or gloss over significant events or character growth in order to satisfy the realities of a page count. I would have had to give readers Marie Antoinette’s tumultuous story in broad strokes. Writing a trilogy gave me the freedom to use a wider canvas and to depict it in oils.
The Queen in her chemise a la reine
What do you think was the most significant event in the span of years covered in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow that helped to turn the tide against Marie Antoinette/royal family? The American Revolution? The Necklace Affair? Or something else?
The average Frenchman and woman were not conversant with international politics. It angered them that their tax dollars were spent fighting foreign wars, but the American Revolution was hardly the first foreign war France had fought. Before Marie Antoinette even came to France, her future husband’s predecessor, his grandfather Louis XV had emptied the treasury fighting the Seven Years’ War, and long before that, the Sun King Louis XIV had spent the better part of his 77-year reign at war.
Marie Antoinette’s downfall occurred incrementally. Although there had been people at court who were against her marriage, and the case can be made that her downfall began as soon as she crossed the border into France in May of 1770, it really began in earnest when she started alienating the aristocratic courtiers by mocking them and their sainted etiquette and then ostracizing them (for example, by making le Petit Trianon an exclusive haven for herself and an intimate circle of trusted friends) when they derided her. However, they got their revenge by destroying her reputation. They spread rumors of her debauchery and adulterous liaisons, and when she finally bore children after more than seven years of a celibate marriage, they hinted that her brother-in-law the rakish comte d’Artois was the father. No matter how she dressed—whether it was opulently, as befitting the queen of the most sophisticated court in Europe, or modestly, embracing a rustic simplicity, she was condemned for bankrupting not only the country with her extravagant purchases, but the morals of the nation, because women were “compelled” to take lovers in order to be able to afford to follow her fashions.
Yet it was the Necklace Affair that was the culmination of years of gossip, propaganda, and scurrilous pamphlets known as libelles proclaiming Marie Antoinette’s licentiousness, lesbianism, and rampant greed (none of which were true) that I believe was the beginning of the end, sounding her death knell. Although she had never desired this nearly two-million-livre diamond necklace and had never asked her distant cousin the Cardinal de Rohan (whom she’d always detested) to purchase it for her on the sly, the people didn’t believe her. In hindsight, she never should have insisted on a public trial before the Parlement of Paris, the city’s judicial body; but she wanted to clear her name. She couldn’t believe she had been dragged into the whole sordid mess and wished to be exonerated publicly. Ironically, it was the worst thing that she could have done, because ultimately it was her reputation that ended up being on trial.
The comtesse de Lamotte-Valois, the con artist who had dreamed up the necklace scam,was severely punished (although someone eventually helped her break out of prison), but the Cardinal was given the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, because the judges (comprised of noblemen and clergy) who sat on the Parlement not only couldn’t believe that such a man of the Church (hah!) was really involved but they wanted to find a way to punish—in their view—the frivolous queen who cared only for her own vanity. From that point on, the public were willing to believe the worst about Marie Antoinette. They utterly demonized her. The diamond necklace verdict was proof that the people had triumphed over the monarchy and their days were clearly numbered by then.
a reproduction of the necklace that caused so much turmoil
What part of writing historical fiction appeals to you the most as a writer? Re-imagining/ humanizing famous characters? Recreating famous events with your own interpretation?
I love getting inside my characters’ heads and souls. Walking in their shoes. I’m also an actress and it’s part of my job to plumb the depths of my characters in search of their motivations. It’s one reason I was so keen to tell Marie Antoinette’s story through the medium of historical fiction. The motives ascribed to her (and to Louis as well), by more than two centuries of propaganda and what I call “bad history” that has come down to us through generations of schoolbooks and even in some biographies, just doesn’t fit the character of the people I have studied intensely for the past four years. So yes, I love humanizing historical figures within the context of the facts of their lives. And I do also love to interpret the events as well, but I won’t change the facts, unless it’s a minor tweak here or there that will not affect the story. As Pat Moynihan, the late great senator from New York State used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Even though I’m writing fiction, I try very hard to adhere to the historical record. My Marie Antoinette novels even have a bibliography at the back and an Author’s Note where I discuss my interpretation of certain events and any instances where I have deviated from the facts.
Marie in her opulent regalia
Were there any surprises about this Queen that you learned while researching the novel?
Marie Antoinette was a lot smarter and more astute than people gave her credit for. She was quite a complex woman. I also discovered along the way that her relationship with her husband was multidimensional and matured and changed over time as well. Many scholars tend to view her relationship with Louis in one of two ways: either she was perpetually exasperated by him, or else she was a saint when it came to being his wife. I don’t believe either tells the full story, although there certainly were times when she was frustrated by the fact that they had little in common, were temperamental opposites, and, most importantly, that he delayed consummating their marriage for so many years. It was during all those years of delay that the rumors of her infidelity began to spread because the French failed to believe that she could be celibate all that time.
But like many marriages that endure for more than 20 years, especially during times of great turmoil, theirs was often extremely challenging, and yet there was never a thought of giving up on each other, despite everything that happened. Marie Antoinette grows tremendously as a person during the course of the trilogy. I had a vision in my head of how I wanted her to develop as a character and was delighted that my research enabled me to support it so well.
Louis XVI as a young man about the time he ascended the throne
For people who need more Marie Antoinette before The Last October Sky comes out, what other non fiction and/or historical fiction novels about her would you recommend?
Pulling from my bibliography at the back of Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow: To feed your nonfiction Marie Antoinette fix, I’d recommend starting with either Antonia Fraser’s or Evelyne Lever’s biographies of Marie Antoinette; Stanley Loomis’s fascinating account of the relationship between the Queen and Count Axel von Fersen, titled The Fatal Friendship; and, for a bit of atmosphere, A Scented Palace by Elisabeth de Feydeau, which is a biography of Marie Antoinette’s perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon. There are a couple of good “coffee table” books on Versailles, too, with scrumptious photographs that transport you there. Daub some cologne on your pulse points, swoon over the photos, and become an armchair tourist. Frances Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace: Marie Antoinette and the Scandal That Shocked and Mystified France provides a detailed account of this con of the 18th century, including actual trial testimony and depositions. And for fashionistas, there’s Caroline Weber’s What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
I try not to read other historical fiction set during the same period in which I am writing, but I will recommend two standouts on how the other 99% were living at the time: Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And you can never go wrong with the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities.
Any plans for another series centered on the French Monarchy in another time or Revolution from another point of view?
I have a file bursting with “story ideas.” What you mentioned is in there. So . . . we shall see!
I'm grateful for Juliet taking the time to stop by - with such detailed, complete answers, as well for the tidbits she shares (A new title for the last in the trilogy? A possible future project that I already want?!) and I highly recommend checking out her Marie Antoinette series.
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