History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 August 2009

Marie Antoinette's Makeover

This will be a short post because I'm juggling multiple deadlines, but I wanted to share one of the "eureka" moments I experienced during my research on Marie Antoinette.

Last spring I read more than a dozen biographies of her and was surprised that very few historians or academics mention the fact that the young Austrian archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Hapsburg von Lothringen underwent a comprehensive physical makeover to make her appearance more attractive to the French.

Negotiations to wed Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the dauphin of France and grandson of King Louis XV, began in 1766 when she was only ten years old. The talks dragged on for years, not atypical for a dynastic alliance. By 1768, Antonia's mother, the Empress of Austria Maria Theresa, still had no firm commitment from Louis XV. Something had to be done to hasten the process, as Austria (with Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia eager to chew off pieces of the empire) desperately needed France as a political ally.

In order to prove to Louis what a beauty her youngest daughter had become since their negotiations began, in 1768 Maria Theresa commissioned the French portraitist Joseph Ducreux to immortalize the then-twelve-year-old Antonia in oils. Antonia (who years later would confess "I am terrified of being bored" ) was notoriously too impatient and exuberant; and after five sittings, the result was disastrous. So Ducreux literally went back to the drawing board.

The result was this portrait of the thirteen-year-old archduchess, not completed until 1769. It was then sent to Versailles.

In order to create this image of teenage perfection Antonia's hairline had been altered. The first step was the removal of a woolen band that her governess had used for years to keep her unruly strawberry blonde curls off her forehead. The band had been so tight and had been used for so many years that it had resulted in hair loss, with bald patches near Antonia's hairline. In addition, her high Hapsburg forehead was judged too unattractive for French tastes and a Parisian friseur, or hairdresser, named Monsieur Larsenneur was sent to Vienna to soften the hairline and create a flattering new hairdo that would disguise the problem. The style, named à la dauphine, became all the fashion for the young Viennese. In Ducreux's portrait Antonia's hair has been lightly powdered.

But the new hairstyle was nothing compared to what Antonia's mouth had to undergo. Her teeth were crooked and in the early months of 1768 a French dentist, Pierre Laveran, was summoned to the Hofburg Palace to straighten them. Evidently, he used an 18th century form of braces. However, none of Marie Antoinette's biographers could enlighten me on the details (one did mention a device called "the Pelican" but had misidentified what the "Pelican" actually was, so it's a good thing I didn't take their word for it). [Since someone is bound to ask, the "Pelican" was a set of pliers used to pull teeth. The pincers or forceps end of the pliers was shaped like a pelican's beak, hence the name.]

After letting my fingers do the walking in cyberspace, I not only came across the technique that would have been used at the time, but the name of the dentist who did the work! Finding the name of Pierre Laveran, who came from a family of respected dentists, was the "eureka" moment. It was enhanced by my discovery of the technique that would have been used at the time, a horseshoe shaped device made of precious metal with perforations at regular intervals through which gold wires were threaded. The device, called "Fauchard's Bandeau" was a revolutionary technique developed by Pierre Fauchard, widely considered to be the father of modern dentistry (and orthodontics). Fauchard's 1728 treatise, "The Surgeon Dentist" (or, in French Le Chirugien Dentiste) was the dental Bible of the age.

Pierre Fauchard (1678 [?] - 1761]

Discovering Fauchard and his method of applying braces to someone's crooked teeth was a golden research moment for me. Taking the process one step further to find the name of the dentist who actually applied the bandeaux to Marie Antoinette's teeth, took it platinum.

Have you ever gone searching for information and stumbled upon exactly what you were looking for -- the tiny detail or tidbit of arcana that added additional authenticity to your novel -- even though you might be the only geek who would ever know (or care) that you hadn't made up the information?

What was it?

P.S. The photo below is a postscript to a comment I made on Kathrynn's recent post about Dark Heroes. We were discussing Brian de Bois-Guilbert in Ivanhoe, and I mentioned that I had adapted the novel for the stage and played Rebecca. That's me, of course, in the dark wig. Ivanhoe was played by the incomparable Ian Rose, who was my co-writer on the script and who also staged the fights.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, I wore braces, which wasn't fun, but that thing just looks WEIRD. Of course, I've been writing about surgery aboard Nelson's Victory for my latest novel, and that was no walk in the park, either.

I think my biggest eureka moment thus far, and it's a Marie Antoinette moment, was when I discovered that she really did enjoy dolls. I knew that they were used to display fashions, but I didn't know that she would send them to her mother and sister. I found this out after *after* I decided to make the queen a doll collector in my book, so it was more than an eureka moment, it was a wow-this-is-just-perfect sort of thing.

I love it when history can fit my imagination properly!

Christine Trent
"The Queen's Dollmaker"
Available for pre-order at Amazon, Borders, and Books-a-Million

7:30 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, that's a great "eureka" moment. It's definitely amazing when you write something in a novel and then discover that it's fact and not fiction. I think it might be an indication of how well you know your characters, even when they are actual historical personages, that you ascribe a personality quirk, hobby, etc., to them because it seems to be in character for them to behave that way. And sure enough, they really did!

8:20 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

So interesting, Amanda. Wow, great historical detective work---although I shudder to think how those teeth were pulled---without anesthesia. Grimace.

And what a great photo of Brian and Rebecca--Brian's story really needs to be told in his own book, don't you think? Maybe it already exsists....

8:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Kathrynn!

I can't begin to imagine the pain of wearing 18th century braces...though I had to, for the scene in my wip.

The photo is actually of Rebecca nursing Ivanhoe. I have so many pix of the show, and some good ones of the actor who played Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the multitalented William Richert, but none of them are on my computer because it was the pre-digital age. The only reason I have the one of Rebecca and Ivanhoe is because it was scanned by my former webmaster onto my old web site.

I think Brian needs his own book, too. In fact, I think his background and character arc are far more compelling and complex than Ivanhoe's. I have proposed writing the story from Rebecca's POV, but my editor wasn't biting. Said the story wasn't well known enough. Intimated that Rebecca is "too Jewish," and therefore appeals only to a niche readership. Sigh. Maybe someday.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the "Ivanhoe" picture, and I'd love to read your version of the story from Rebecca's pov. Seems to me Ivanhoe's been filmed enough a lot of people know it, if they haven't read the book. Totally agree on Brian being more interesting than Ivanhoe, and Rebeca more interesting than Rowena...

And the Marie Antoinette braces story is fascinating. I love it when historical detective work pays off like that. I was looking for information about Tsarina Elisabeth (wife of Alexander I) for my current WIP and discovered that one of her lovers was murdered under mysterious circumstances and that her brother-in-law destroyed some of her diaries and letters when he came to power, both of which fit perfectly into my plot.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, how obliging of the Tsarina's brother-in-law to bolster a plot point!

I often wonder how many readers know the history in as much detail as we do, to realize that we're dramatizing often arcane events that really occurred. I know that when I read someone else's historical fiction and I come across a detail, or a quote that's real I find myself exclaiming things like "wow, yup, that really happened. Good for you! [my compliment to the absent author]"

10:29 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Yes, very obliging of her brother-in-law :-).

I wonder too, Amanda, about readers knowing the minutiae of what really occurred. So I make sure to mention those "arcane events that really occurred" in my historical notes!

11:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I can't believe they rejected Rebecca's story. Try to sell it to someone who'll niche-market it. PLEASE.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you SO MUCH, Pam, for that nudge of approbation. It's a book of my heart, so I may write it regardless and see what happens. The comment that editors have made that they fear most people have never heard of Ivanhoe, is as bad as the recent news item about a pair of young cops who saw Bob Dylan wandering aimlessly around a NJ neighborhood, picked him up,and when he said he didn't have any i.d. with him and told them who he was, they'd never heard of him.

What once was hep and hip is now forgotten. Feh.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Marie Antoinette is just beginning to fascinate me and your post added a whole new element.

As for my own eureka moments in research, I have had several that have to do with architecture but trust me -- they fall into the class of uninteresting-to-most-people.

I think a lot of folks, young and old, know Ivanhoe as a heroic name but do not know the story -- the idea of a novel from Rebecca's POV that would educate people about the story from a different perspective would be fascinating.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, my grandfather had a saying: "When 3 people tell you you're drunk--lie down!" So all I need is one more person to tell me to write the Rebecca book anyway. :) Maybe I'm the third. I wish there were enough time to write the books I'm under contract to write (the research required of my nonfiction just sucks the hours out of the day) plus the fiction that editors do seem to be interested in seeeing, as well as the stories I've been meaning to write for some years now.

Does anyone else have this problem? Please tell me I'm not alone!

5:14 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

No offense, but your editor's comment about Ivanhoe is ridunkulous. I'm sure that not everyone who read The Red Tent or the Kommandant's Wife were Jewish. Rebecca being Jewish is just part of the story, there's also the intrigue with King John. I would think the popularity of the Robin Hood series on BBC America would make editors jump at the chance to have something fresh in that period.

And who cares if not that many people know about Ivanhoe? They will after they read your novel. Rebecca and Sir Brian are the most interesting and compellig story in the entire novel, certainly not Ivanhoe and Rowena. When I was a child, I read a book by Edward Eager called Half-Knight where the characters somehow end up in Ivanhoe. I had no idea from Ivanhoe at 9, and this was a kid's book. Of course, I then tried to read Ivanhoe and didn't understand it, but I loved Half-Knight. I say write the book when you have the time and try to sell it. I bet you will find an editor who thinks differently. It only takes one.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I love that Edward Eager book (I think it's "Knight's Castle"--there's an earlier book in the series called "Half Magic"). One of the kids has a toy castle that they set up as "Ivanhoe" and at night the world of the castle comes to life and the kids can go into it. That was my introduction to "Ivanhoe" too (though I did read the book eventually), and I was entranced. The kids change the ending so Ivanhoe ends up with Rebecca. Rebecca also reforms Brian. And I think de Bracy ends up with Rowena.

I totally think you should write the book, Amanda. Robin Hood's actually a character in "Ivanhoe"--that should be a good hook!

11:57 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you, Elizabeth (now I want to read "Half-Knight"!). You and Tracy make good points about Robin Hood being in the novel as well. When Tracy said I think de Bracy ends up with Rowena I couldn't help thinking of the joke about Hamlet -- and I paraphrase. An actor is giving the plot points to someone else and says that Hamlet slept with Ophelia. The other guy says, "What? Hamlet didn't sleep with Ophelia!" to which the actor replies "They did in the Chicago company."

In my theatre company's production of Ivanhoe Rowena did end up with deBracy--but not in the script! :)

5:31 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Tracy for the clarification. I did remember that Ivanhoe ended up with Rebecca in the book. Amanda, both books by Edward Eager are wonderful and magical. And the whole Robin Hood angle is also a good hook for the Rebecca book.

7:41 AM  
Blogger James said...

Cosmetic dentistry is all about improving your smile. Some people have broken, chipped, stained or missing teeth and with a valley cosmetic dentist they can get the smile they always dreamed they’d have.

4:01 AM  

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