History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 June 2011


I suppose I should introduce myself as well, as this is my maiden blog post for the History Hoydens ... I am the author of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette, to be published in trade paperback by Ballantine, beginning with the August 9 release of the first of the three novels, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE.

(It will also be available on Kindle, Nook, Ipad, and even your iPhone!); and I had the wonderful experience of recording the unabridged audiobook version of the novel last month, flying out to Woodland Hills, CA, the home of Random House Audio, to do so. Although the events of the narrative are all based on heavily researched factual information, I knew my book was also character-driven and dialogue-heavy in some places -- but it really hit home when I began to record scenes involving multiple characters, both male and female, some of differing nationalities and realized I needed to voice them all and differentiate each one with cadences, intonations, and personalties (and occasionally accents) commensurate with the text. It wasn't just reading a book into a microphone; it became a week-long performance.

The palace of Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna, Maria Antonia’s childhood home during the summer months

BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE opens on the day when Archduchess Maria Antonia, the youngest daughter of the formidable Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, learns that she is to be betrothed to Louis-Auguste, grandson of Louis XV and the dauphin of France, or heir to the French throne.

Louis, at the age of 20, by then Louis XVI

The narrative ends on the day of Louis XV's death, May 10, 1774.

From the Amazon product description:

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels, Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.

I was so surprised to discover, as I read myriad biographies of Marie Antoinette, how little of her childhood is discussed. I will not enumerate any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that young Maria Antonia was no stranger to loss as a little girl. Not only that, at the instigation of her mother and at the prompting of Louis Quinze, who was not prepared to accept her as the future dauphine of France until she was deemed fully baked in every way (the first thing he inquired about her when the marriage was first proposed -- and Antoinia was only ten -- was whether she had good breasts!), the preadolescent archduchess was subjected to a full makeover of both mind and body. This included a radical change to her hairline to make her forehead appear less prominent and several months of orthodontia in a device known as Fauchard's Bandeaux.

As I researched the novel I became determined to find out the identities of everyone involved in Maria Antonia's transformation; you will meet all of them in the novel.

Her diction and elocution were improved by a pair of native French speakers; she was taught all the court dances performed at Versailles, as well as the unique step known as the Versailles Glide that all of the court ladies had perfected to make it appear as though they floated through the opulent halls and corridors. Moreover, for a girl who had never mastered the rudiments of either her native German tongue, nor her future French one, she was rigorously tutored in grammar and penmanship, French history, geography, and royal genealogy.

Although the archduchess Maria Antonia was quite the little hoyden as a child, and did not mend her ways for several years, even as dauphine of France, she did not go from heedless to headless, as many historians would have us believe. She was a passionate, and compassionate young lady who wore her large heart on her sleeve and who was taught the blessings of charity at an early age. Unfortunately, she was wed to a total stranger at the age of fourteen and entered the Bourbon court as an enemy, because Austria and France had been adversaries for nearly 950 years previously; and there were still many at Versailles who spoke against this Franco-Austrian alliance, even after the marriage vows were taken on May 16, 1770.

The palace of Versailles

Marie Antoinette's life was one long series of hurdles. Often she stumbled and fell, but more often than not she picked herself up, dusted herself off and glided ahead ... until the next hurdle hove into view. She detested convention and etiquette and in a court hidebound by the protocol devised by the Sun King, Louis XIV, this was anathema, so she soon made many more enemies. One of her fatal mistakes was that she didn't take them seriously.

What's your opinion of Marie Antoinette, and what has formed it? Biographies? Films? Something else?


Blogger Audra said...

Wonderful post -- I'm reviewing this book later this summer so I'm especially excited now! Orthodontia?! I shudder!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Thank you, Audra! Oh, yes, orthodontia! The dentist was a man named Pierre Laveran, whose father was a dentist as well, and he came from France to Austria to employ the latest techniques (in 1768) on the poor 12-year-old archduchess. I got braces when I was a little older than that, so I could identify with having a mouth full of unsightly metal that you could taste and feel against your tongue and gums ... but the discomfort!

2:23 PM  
Blogger Audra said...

Exactly! I thought my braces were medieval -- goodness knows how awful Marie Antoinette's were! (and also, I love these kinds of details -- talk about being able to relate!)

2:34 PM  
Blogger Maria D. said...

Great post! I've always felt that Marie Antoinette was more than what historians have written in textbooks......I've never felt that we had gotten a complete picture - plus the French court was notorious for their excess and she was caught up in that world and she was sent there so young....

3:20 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Audra, and Maria, I found both Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste (in him I saw a bit of the fat kid in school who everyone picked on), eminently relatable, and that's why I was burning to tell the real story of Marie Antoinette's life. Both of them were in way over their heads, so ill prepared to handle the events that eventually overtook them. But (and this will come to light in the later books in the trilogy), it was not Marie Antoinette's excessive shopping that bankrupted France. Far from it. Sure, she spent like mad (and I hope it's clear why in the novels), but everyone else at court, and in the Bourbon royal family was doing the same thing. Louis XVI had been left a bankrupt treasury by his grandfather Louis XV, who had spent a bundle on the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War); and the American colonists would likely not have been able to repel the British redcoats and emerge victorious to form the United States, had not France, under Louis XVI aided them militarily and financially. Ironically, this would begin to sound the death knell for them on two fronts: further deepening France's financial woes, and sparking the thirst for liberty among the French, many of whom (among the nobility) had served in regiments in North America fighting in the War of Independence.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, Juliet - when I grow up, may I please have a cover like this one? Wow! Marie Antoinette comes so wonderfully alive in it!

Most of what I know about her as an individual comes from Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber. I read that for my French Revolution-set historical novel, which featured a French noblewoman at Marie Antoinette's court. Researching her life from that angle gave me a very different perspective from my previous vague, political thoughts.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Audra said...

Juliet -- Hilariously, or fortuitously, my copy of Becoming Marie Antoinette arrived this evening! I'm thrilled to hear this is the first of a trilogy -- and really eager to see a 'human' Marie Antoinette.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Thanks, Diane! I love the cover! You have no idea how many emails went back and forth with my editor over the dress, the hair color (Marie Antoinette was in fact a strawberry blonde -- not the Kirsten Dunstesque flaxen blonde as she is so often depicted), the wig itself, and even the makeup on the young model. When they say "cover consultation" in the contract, I sure got it!

"Queen of Fashion" is an excellent resource and one of many I have used.

@Audra: Enjoy (fingers crossed)!!

5:04 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

From everything I've read over the years, I've concluded that she got a VERY bum wrap. She was extremely intelligent and had the king listened to her, they would likely have lived to rule again after Napoleon was defeated.

Can’t wait for these to come out!

9:04 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

In many ways you're right, Isobel, although had MA not been so insistent on packing and traveling like a queen for the flight to Varennes in June 1791, they would have ridden in a less flamboyant-looking, lighter, faster coach, with far less baggage, and might in fact have made it to the border. When push came to shove after the revolution, however, the king did become more of a ditherer and the queen really did come into her own, the Varennes incident aside. "Tribulation makes one realize what one is," she confided in a friend a year or so after the fall of the Bastille. [That quote will be my epigraph for Book 3, at least that's what I'm planning at this point.]

She very definitely DID get a bum rap, though. As I mentioned in the original post, she arrived in France with 950 years of historical enmity between Austria and France to contend with, so she was already considered an enemy. Her mother had exhorted her, on her departure from Vienna in 1770 to make the French love her, but it was an uphill battle from the start, and in many ways, an impossibility, given the history between the 2 countries. And she was such a natural people-pleaser. She DID just want to be loved. But no matter what she did, she was criticized for it. When she dressed like a queen in the most opulent silks and satins -- she was accused of dressing like a royal mistress and bankrupting the nation by overspending her allowance and encouraging women of modest means to go into debt by emulating her. When she dressed in simple white muslin frocks -- she was accused of dressing like a whore in her underwear and bankrupting the silk merchants of France, not to mention all her imitators who ostensibly had to buy a zillion of those fragile gowns because they wore out so quickly.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Welcome, Juliet! So glad you've joined us. Fabulous post (and I agree a fabulous cover). My view of Marie Antoinette is much in line with the woman you've described. It's been formed by a number of sources--movies, books, a great exhibit of treasures from the Trianon at the Legion of Honour in San Francisco a few years ago. But I think my first introduction to Marie Antoinette was a coloring book of Infamous Women of History that I was given as a child. The coloring book had great historical notes and made the point that many of the women really should not be considered infamous at all.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Oh, Tracy, I wish I could have seen the exhibit in SF, even though I have visited le Petit Trianon. Still, I can't look at her stuff enough (some of her possessions are the Wrightsmann Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC).

And I would have LOVED to have owned that coloring book! Who else was in it?

Hey, we could do a Hoydens Through History book!

2:27 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I know it had Mata Hari and Lucretia Borgia. I think it may have had Messalina as well, and a bunch others. The historical notes were great. It's where I learned Mata Hari probably wasn't really a master spy and Lucretia Borgia wasn't a scheming poisoner (which was a good start for when I wrote a paper on her years later in college).

3:23 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

I've always thought Lucretia Borgia was a great subject for historical fiction (and I know she's been "done" -- I have the novel John Faunce wrote for Crown around 2004 or so, but it's still on my TBR pile, believe it or not; and there have been others out just this year or last) ... but if she wasn't a scheming poisoner (and was it true after all that she had incestuous relationships with her brother and father?) then is there enough drama in her true story to keep readers intrigued?

There certainly is in Marie Antoinette's life; it wasn't all about shopping and flouncing about le Petit Trianon in candy-colored dresses. :)

5:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The rumors about Lucretia having incestuous relationships with Cesare and Alexander are probably just that, rumors. She did have love affairs, including one of with her brother-in-law, but her husband was having affairs as well. She lived at the center of a great deal of intrigue, so I think there's definitely enough for a book.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Anna Gibson said...

Wonderful post! I absolutely love the cover of the book, by the way - how nice to see a full face on a cover for once! :)

My opinion of Marie Antoinette did not really extend far beyond "that queen who executed during the French Revolution and didn't say 'Let them eat cake'..." until the past few years when I really began to read and study about her. What a difference I that has made! I'm glad more and more authors are looking to tell the more "real" story of her life in novels, even when the real story doesn't amount to her sipping champagne and eating mountains of pastries.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Thank you, Anna! I love it that you were inspired to do some more research on Marie Antoinette, because indeed most people think she went from heedless to headless, and my trilogy will depict some of the lesser known scenes of her life and convey the humanity (or lack of it) of the actual historical figures. I have found Marie Antoinette and Louis to be quite lovable.

In truth, MA ate very little, at least during the public grands couverts that were unique to the court of Versailles (at least the Hapsburg court in Vienna had nothing like it). She did not like to be watched while she was eating and the etiquette of the whole rigmarole made her uncomfortable from day one, after she arrived in France. She was observed by memoirists nibbling at a chicken wing and not much else,

And, like her august mother the Empress Maria Theresa, she didn't guzzle champagne (sorry, Sophia Coppola), except for the occasional obligatory/celebratory sip of alcohol.

She mostly drank Ville d'Avray, a specialty water imported to court from another region of France (like we might insist on Perrier or Evian in favor of local tap water) because she didn't like the taste of the water at Versailles.

I'm a big believer that the real stories are always more interesting that whatever a screenwriter can make up, and I always applaud authors of historical fiction who care enough about the actual history to weave it into their narratives rather than try to rewrite it.

Have you read Hilary Mantel's masterful WOLF HALL? I found myself saying aloud as I read certain scenes, "Yes! He/she really said that!" (or did that). For me, if I know a given era or historical figure fairly well, seeing the "Mantel treatment" applied to a book takes the enjoyment of the novel to an extra, bonus level.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Anna Gibson said...

I've heard about her light eating before - what a difference from the popular culture image of her munching on pastries! I read that she imported her water, but I didn't know what "brand" (for lack of a better term!) it was! That's interesting!

I haven't read Wolf Hall, but I have read A Place of Greater Safety by the same author and I really enjoyed it. I think the best historical fiction is a blend of what we know and a blend of what could have happened - so it will be really interesting to see what you've come up with in this trilogy! I'm especially excited because a trilogy gives you so much more space to develop characters and events, rather than trying to fit in a lifetime's worth of experience in a single novel!

8:08 PM  

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