History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 September 2009

Following In Famous Footsteps

I just returned from a few days in Paris, and I'm way behind in my research and writing schedule (yeah, yeah, I know, cue the violins), so this post will be primarily visual.

Because I researched the lives of Napoleon and Josephine for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, I took advantage of the fact that our hotel room wasn't yet ready on our arrival, so my husband and I took the metro and then a bus out to Malmaison.

The origin of the name "bad house" is unknown, but a house on the location dates to the twelfth century. On April 21, 1799, Josephine Bonaparte bought Malmaison, having been charged by her husband (who was off attempting to conquer Egypt) to find a nice country retreat. It became their favorite spot to unwind as the imperial couple; and Napoleon gave it to Josephine as part of their divorce arrangement in 1810.

Although we arrived on a somewhat gray day, and the facade is a dove gray as well, there was something very sad about the bad house. It's a museum of Napoleona now; the rooms contain period furniture, though not necessarily what was in the château at the time Josephine and Napoleon lived there.

Apart from the gardens gracing the entry to Malmaison, the grounds, including Josephine's famous rose gardens, seem sadly neglected. In late September, there isn't much blooming, but I did take a couple of pictures of the descendents of Josephine's roses. It wasn't until I uploaded the photos and noticed the speckled detail on this rose, that I was really struck by the poignancy of what looks like blood-spattered purity. Thoughts of the Revolution and Madame Guillotine came immediately to mind, as well as the broken marriage of the imperial couple.

The Conciergerie, once the residence of Medieval French kings, its purpose perverted during the Revolution, is similarly bleak. The heaviness of the atmosphere, the sorrow in the air, were palpable to me.

Lower level of the Conciergerie; the frieze of is of Bacchus and grapes, contrasting with the glum mood of the castle that became a prison.

The Women's Courtyard -- the Cour des Femmes. Female prisoners were permitted to take some fresh air here.

They tried to discreetly wash themselves and their dirty hose and linen in this fountain in the cour des femmes; feeling clean(ish) was a rare opportunity to retain a modicum of dignity in the crowded, filthy, and smelly prison. The male prisoners were afforded no such "luxury."

And how ironic that the place where Marie Antoinette spent her final months should now have a gift shop selling replicas of her head (this is the original marble bust, which is at Versailles)!

At Versailles I walked and walked in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette. For research purposes I've spent a lot of time in her company lately and have come to appreciate and understand, even love, her. Sometimes it were the little details that struck me.

Was this cupid relief on the chapel door the last thing she saw before walking down to aisle to be married to the dauphin, Louis Auguste, on May 16, 1770?

What did her bedroom (this is of course a re-creation of her furnishings) look like on that horrific day in 1789 when an angry mob armed with pitchforks, clubs, and pikes, stormed the queen's rooms in search of L'Autrichenne, beheading the faithful guards who tried to block their entry?

Who did she frolic with in the Temple of Love on the grounds of Le Petit Trianon?

Did she sip chocolate, gossip, or play cards, in the remote and sunny Belvedere?

Did she ever share this single bed at Le Petit Trianon with Axel Fersen?

Have you ever walked in the footsteps of your characters, whether for research purposes, or for the sheer pleasure of it? Who were they, and what did you take away from the experience?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What lovely pictures, thank you for sharing them. I've often wondered what it must have been like for Marie Antoinette, who was born in the proverbial lap of luxury, to end up in a rat-infested, denigrating hole like the Conciergerie. No wonder she said her troubles were all over when she learned she was to be executed!

Yes, I've walked in the footsteps of my characters, but my visits tend to be accidentally related to my stories! For example, I visited Edinburgh several years ago for no reason other than to see the city. Now I'm writing about Madame Tussaud's time touring her wax exhibition through Great Britain, and, lo and behold, it turns out she spent time in Edinburgh! So I can work from pictures and my memory, combined with historical documents of the time, to write about what the city was like.

So I guess I walk in my characters' footsteps, but long before I know they will be my characters!

3:41 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, you're just prescient! If you wanted to deliberately follow in Mme. Tussaud's footsteps, you'd have one amazing vacation! Was she in Edinburgh just to travel with her exhibition, or were there other reasons? What year was it?

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really nice, Amanda. I really love the pictures and all of your comments. I'm not a writer, but I felt as though I was walking in the footsteps of my characters when I studied in Israel for a year, visiting all of the ancient ruins with my rabbinic cantorial classmates. The drama of the prayers passed down from my ancestors became more alive for me during those visits by learning more about the rich history of ancient Israel. I am at least aware of what an inspiration such walks can have upon an artist; bringing them closer to their character, not merely of the one inspiring the imagination, but the one being inspired. Thanks!

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've gone out to Green-Wood cemetary to see Lola Montez's grave, and everytime I pass the Wellington Hotel I think of when Evelyn Nesbit lived there during her relationship with Stanford White. I remember going to Hever Castle during one trip to England and thinking very much that this was where Anne Boleyn lived and spent so much time waiting to see if Henry's divorce had finally gone through. And Leed's Castle where Catherine Valois and Owen Tudor started their affair. Walking the royal mile in Edinburgh from the Castle to Holyrood House you can't but think about Mary Queen of Scots, particularly the room where David Rizzio was murdered.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

When I researched The Slightest Provocation, Michael and I did indeed walk in the path of the Pentrich Marchers, the sad little band of rebels the British Home Office had set up in 1817 to foment rebellion, in order to justify a general government crackdown on basic rights like Habeas Corpus (discovering the set-up plot was the story my romance story twined itself around).

We found the location, but we had the bus schedule wrong. And so we walked rather farther in the rebels' footsteps than we'd intended, before a lovely local couple drove us back to the village where we were staying.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Anonymous: Israel has such a rich history, it's true you cannot help but be imbued, no matter where you walk, with the voices and souls of generations past. The richness of the history overwhelmed me when I visited there some 20+ years ago. L'Shana Tovah, by the way. It must have sent a thrilling chill up your spine to deepen your connection with the ancient texts in that way.

Elizabeth: On your many trips to the UK to walk in the footsteps of Britain's royals ... were you ever overwhelmed by any powerful sensations (love, loss, sorrow, etc.) during your visits to the sites you mentioned? Did visiting Lola Montez's gravesite hit you emotionally in any way, or was it just a pilgrimage?

Pam, you and Michael truly suffered for your art! I am not versed in the history of the Pentrich Marchers at all, and would love to know more about it. Maybe a future post from you?

8:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

We did indeed suffer, Amanda, or at least squabbled, when we got lost and I insisted it was his fault for refusing to ask directions. All, as you say, in the service of art, because I put all that into the chapter of The Slightest Provocation where Mary and Kit get lost on a rainy night, which is how come they meet up with the marchers.

Your post, meanwhile, brought back memories of the first historical romance I ever read, Annemarie Selinko's Desiree. I was eleven. I've never followed up on the actual history, but it's my vague understanding that Desiree Clary did, in fact, lose Napoleon to Josephine before Josephine lost Napoleon to Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria.

And before Napoleon lost the world -- one of the allies against him being Desiree's husband Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a French Officer who'd defected and somehow wound up king of Sweden, with Desiree his queen.

Heady stuff for an eleven-year-old, and I'll never forget Selinko's delicious descriptions of Josephine's gowns and makeup, and the roses at Malmaison. No wonder I set my first romance novel in France, only to find, to my astonishment, that England was the preferred locale for romance fiction.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I've never read Desiree, Pam. Though Napoleon was an utter opportunist in all aspects of his life. He decided it was time to marry, and to marry someone wealthy and connected to the popular political sphere. Desiree wasn't it. He thought Josephine fit the bill until he found out (he went to her notary before they wed to ascertain the state of her finances) that she had lied about her wealth, or at least had fudged the truth. Her family's sugar plantation in Martinique was nearly broke.

Josephine had 2 children from her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais (and Napoleon adored them; he eventually made Eugene a prince and his viceroy in Italy, and married off Hortense to his younger brother Louis who he then made King of Holland). However, she could not give Napoleon an heir, so he divorced her in 1810, marrying Marie Louise of Austria two months later. She bore him a son in 1811. Marie Louise was just a teenager at the time of her marriage and was initially extremely reluctant to become the wife of the emperor of the country that a generation earlier had beheaded her great-aunt, Marie Antoinette.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

I regularly--at least once a year--visit the locations where my real-life characters lived and loved, where they were born and got married and are buried. (Burial sites are a bittersweet pilgrimage for me.) This is a very important and necessary part of my process.

I went to Versailles looking for Louis XIV but of course was bombarded by Marie Antoinette. And--seriously--her ghostly manifestation appeared in one of my photos of Petit Trianon, in the form of a strange pale mark on the image. It wasn't visible on the negative nor was it a processing error (I checked). So I count myself among the many who have experienced Marie's presence.

I also brought home a strand of ivy growing round one of the follies, and made a topiary. A bit of Versailles grows in my kitchen window!

Very much looking forward to your Marie book. I regard her as a very sympathetic and often misunderstood person, and of course very flawed. As we all are!

9:52 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Margaret, we have a very similar process. How wonderful that you are able to make regular visits to your characters' haunts, so to speak. I'd love to see your photo of Versailles with the strange mark on it. I think that one of my photos of the Conciergerie captured something in the expiatory chapel on the site of where they believe her cell was. There was a low, faded velvet armchair placed onto the brick herringbone pattern, and I kept thinking I saw something hovering around the seat before I took the photo.

However did you manage to bring home the ivy from Versailles?? How wonderful!! Believe me, I thought about snipping off a bit of greenery, but felt sure that U.S. Customs would never let me bring it in.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Ooh Pam, I loved Desiree when I read it. I always thought what a big FU it was to Napoleon that she became Queen of Sweden (although it turned out that she hated being Queen). Did you ever see the film with Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando as Napoleon.

As for Lola Montez, I had mixed emotions when I saw her grave. She was only 43 when she died, but she packed more into one lifetime than most people do particularly in the 19th century, but she also must have been a real pain in the ass. I don't know how Ludwig of Bavaria was so enthralled with her for so long. Even Liszt cut his losses with her.

As for Hever just walking around and seeing the rooms and the gardens, I could imagine Anne and Henry VIII walking through them. It must have been a delightful place even back then.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lola Montez was quite the scam artist, wasn't she, in addition to having the temper from Hades?

I always thought it was interesting that Anne of Cleves ended up with Hever Castle in the divorce. Yet no one ever associates her with Hever.

Marlon Brando as Napoleon??? That almost sounds like a joke. Will Sly Stallone do the remake?

11:12 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful post, Amanda! Thank you for sharing the beautiful pictures.

When I was writing Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game, I went to London on a research trip, and my friend Penny Williamson and I traced most of the path Charles and Mélanie take in the book on foot. We got thoroughly lost around Covent Garden though--if Charles and Mel had our sense of direction, the book would resemble a Keystone Cops adventure. I took a lot of pictures of locations, many of which are on my website, including the house in Berkeley Square which is my exterior model for Charles and Mel's house. Last time I was in London the first thing I did was go to Berkeley Square and sit in the square garden in front of the house--it was twilight and so lovely.

Penny and I went to Scotland when I was starting Beneath a Silent Moon and based my fictional Dunmykel on a two of the castles we visited. We also visited the locations of several books both of us had previously written (Shadows of the Heart and Shores of Desire for me, Beloved Rogue for her). So our whole trip around Scotland was organized round our books :-).

2:10 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, that's wonderful; and Scotland is so magical and inspirational. Your sense of place in your Charles and Melanie novels is so redolent and so detailed I felt sure you must have explored many of them personally.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madame Tussaud was in Edinburgh in 1803. She spent 30 years criss-crossing the UK, so to walk in her footsteps I'd have to go to London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, and a dozen other little towns and cities. The woman was indefatigable! I had to just focus on her first few years in the UK to prevent THE WAX APPRENTICE from swelling into several volumes!

Pam -- I adored DESIREE. My mother-in-law gave me an old, coverless hard copy one day and said, "You should read this." Being a dutiful --and new -- daughter-in-law, I did. I always listen to her book recommendations now!

7:53 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I guess it's time to read "Desiree." My grandfather used to have a saying: "When 3 people tell you you're drunk--lie down!"

5:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...


And another book this discussion made me think of, in a snarky way.

Francine Prose's Guided Tours of Hell -- 2 novellas about contemporary people acting badly, while being shown through Auschwitz in the first novella and the Conciegerie in the second.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Duh, I meant Conciergerie.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I think I may have lived through one of Prose's as yet unwritten "Guided Tours ..." When I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam with my best friend from college, we ran into an American guy there, about our age, who kept making tasteless and snarky remarks about the rooms, and the photos the Nazis took of the emaciated survivors, corpses, piles of shoes, jewelry, etc. I was as sickened by his remarks as I was by the content of the photos.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And to continue the conversation -- which is on a wavelength today, it seems -- look what I found in the NY Times on the same page as the crossword puzzle:

A fascinating and very positive review of Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...


7:21 PM  

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