History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 August 2011

Announcing the Release of BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE!

The actual release date for this first novel in the Marie Antoinette trilogy isn't until next week on August 9, but since this is my week to post, I thought I answer some of the FAQs I seem to be getting from the blogosphere.

This has been a dream job; writing a trilogy is affording me the scope and the space to fully address many aspects of Marie Antoinette's life that would otherwise have to be skimmed or crammed in, had I been allotted only 400 pages or so to tell the entire story of her life. I had always envisioned telling Marie Antoinette's story as a trilogy -- Sandra Gulland's brilliant Josephine B. trilogy was my touchstone -- and I was fortunate enough to find an editor whose vision matched my own from the outset. Another dream came true when Ms. Gulland blurbed the book, joining some of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors -- Michelle Moran, Diane Haeger, and the Hoydens' own inimitable Lauren Willig -- and I am extremely grateful to those authors for taking the time from their own busy writing schedules to read a 450-page novel.

[Briefly hopping onto a soapbox, as an aside to all authors, I think we can never appreciate enough the time our colleagues take to blurb our books. I've known writers who will graciously drop everything to blurb a book because their own editor, or their editor's colleague passed it to them, so they feel it's good karma -- and then no one even bothers to thank them for their time, or to send them a copy of the published novel with their blurb on it. ]

A Conversation with Juliet Grey,
Author of
Becoming Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is such a well known historical figure; and people either love her or hate her. What made you want to tell her story and what is different about BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE from other fictional depictions of her life?

Many people’s perceptions of Marie Antoinette are based on cinematic characterizations in which she is portrayed as going from heedless to headless, a clueless, insensitive, idiotic spendthrift. When I tell people I have written a novel about Marie Antoinette, they immediately invoke the infamous “Let them eat cake” line and I have to inform them that she never said it. In fact Marie Antoinette was extremely generous to the impoverished and starving people of France, but her good deeds got in the way of the propagandists’ agendas. The Marie Antoinette that people think they know is largely a creature of myth. She said “Let them eat cake” as much as Empress Catherine the Great died having sex with a horse.

I fell in love with Marie Antoinette (and Louis) while I was researching their marriage for a work of nonfiction; and the more I read about them, the more it became apparent that they have truly been misrepresented and misinterpreted by historians. They say history is written by the winners, and Marie Antoinette and Louis were the two greatest victims of the French Revolution.

What sparked BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE specifically is how little has been told about her childhood years and the incredible makeover she had to endure at the hands of a small army of experts before she was judged acceptable marriage material, while the clock was ticking and a vitally strategic international alliance hung in the balance. The preadolescent Marie Antoinette was worked over by a hairdresser who reconfigured her hairline so that her forehead would not appear to prominent; a dentist who realigned her teeth with orthodontia, a pair of actors who became her dialect coaches for her pronunciation of French; a notable dancing master who taught her the “Versailles Glide,” the walk that was unique to the women of the Bourbon court; and a gentle cleric who came to tutor her in academics. My novel also shows just how much the young Austrian archduchess Maria Antonia was a political pawn, moved about the European chessboard by her mother, the formidable Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa, and King Louis XV of France.

How accurate are the events you depict in the novel?

Not only is the book extensively researched, but I went so far as to find the names and backgrounds of the actual figures who aided in Marie Antoinette’s physical metamorphosis. Nearly every scene in the book has its roots in fact, and in some cases, the dialogue (and in particular the correspondence) reflects the actual words that were spoken or written. We are fortunate in that the Eighteenth Century was an age of great letter writers and memoirists. Nearly everyone kept a journal back then.

So where does the fiction come in?
Although we know that certain things happened historically, as a novelist I have the freedom to imagine what was really going on in the room at the time and in the characters’ heads. We don’t always know how a given thing occurred, just that it did. I have a golden rule of historical fiction writing, which is: that if an incident could have happened, then it’s fair game to include it in a novel. For my own taste, I prefer not to wildly re-imagine historical events in my books. For one thing, fans of historical fiction (and I’m one as well) tend to be versed in the history of their favorite time period and they get pulled out of the narrative when an author includes a scene that strains credulity or plays too fast and loose with the historical record.

How did you do your research for BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE?
I read well over a dozen biographies of Marie Antoinette, plus numerous other books related to her, about other figures in the novel or about the era as a whole, including books on her residences such as Schönbrunn and Versailles. I also read countless articles on the specifics of her life from the minutiae of the kind of orthodontia she was compelled to wear as an adolescent to the interior décor of her rooms and the clothing of the era. Looking at actual portraits of the characters also informed me about their appearance (although the painters might have flattered their subjects at the time). I am also fortunate to have colleagues with unique expertise in certain areas and I was able to pick their brains on such things as elements of costume and certain details related to the scenes where the characters’ practice of their Catholicism is important, like the correct habit a novitiate would have worn at the Carmelite of St. Denis. So I didn’t have to make it up or wing it; and it was exciting to be able to incorporate that level of historical accuracy into my novel.

In the opening line of BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, young Maria Antonia, who is narrating, states “My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were ‘sacrifices to politics.’ ” Can you expound on that a bit?

Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of the sixteen children born to Empress Maria Theresa and Francis of Lorraine. All royal marriages in those days were political; in essence, they were peace treaties. The concept of Love, or marrying for love, didn’t enter into the equation. In fact, for all classes of society marriage was viewed as an economic arrangement and it was exceedingly rare for the spouses to be in love with each other (ironically, Marie Antoinette’s parents’ union was more of a love match than a dynastic one). In most instances, the entire point of a royal alliance was to cement relations between two regions; and usually the bride and groom (first married by proxy in the bride’s native land with someone from the nobility standing in for the groom) had never even met until (or just before) their wedding day in the groom’s kingdom.

Maria Theresa’s chief ambition for her daughters was the same as any other monarch’s: to make brilliant marriages for her girls, alliances with various other royal houses that would ensure the peace and stability of the realm. Princesses and archduchesses had no say in who they would marry; they were raised to understand that their destiny was to become the wife of a foreign prince or king and that it was a near certainty that they would never see their homelands again after they departed to wed. So it’s hard to envy these young women, more or less bred in captivity to be the brood mares of men they didn’t know and might possibly not even grow to like, let alone love.

You have a lot of sympathy for Marie Antoinette in your novel, though you also don’t sugarcoat her less charming qualities. And your depiction of the dauphin, Louis Auguste, is also not what we usually see from other literary or cinematic portrayals. What informed your view of young Louis?

Louis has also gotten a bum rap from history. He is often depicted as an uneducated, lazy somnolent oaf, none of which is true. He read widely in several languages, and was an avid student of history (ironically, he knew everything there was to know about the reign and fall of England’s Charles I, and was keen, long before the seeds of revolution began to take root, not to end up like him). He was also a large youth, and myopic; and his nearsightedness caused people to think he was clumsy and shambling. The more I read about him the more I began to think of him as the “fat kid” in class who always gets picked on because of his size, when the bullies barely know anything about what he’s really like as a person. Louis suffered from low self esteem, a problem when you’re going to become the king. His older brother Louis Joseph, the proverbial “fair-haired boy” of the family died at the age of nine, and the title of dauphin passed to Louis Auguste. In BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, describing her husband’s passionate interest in masonry, cabinetry and locksmithing, Marie Antoinette says he “dreamt of becoming a tradesman the way a tradesman might dream of becoming king.” Louis did indeed lack the ambition to rule, but he had no choice. It was his destiny.

Louis is a complex figure. He was sexually inexperienced, yet grew to love Marie Antoinette, even as he was incapable of consummating their marriage for more than seven years (if readers don’t know why already, they’ll have to wait for the second book in the trilogy to find out!). He was humble, yet believed firmly in the divine right of kings. And he could be maddeningly indecisive, yet had a firm grasp of what was truly good for France. Unfortunately, some of his ministers, as well as the aristocratic and ecclesiastical strata of society, thwarted him at every turn because his reforms would deprive them of some of the perquisites they had long been accustomed to enjoying—like being exempt from paying taxes. But the revolutionary firebrands had no idea what was going on behind the scenes and blamed Louis (and Marie Antoinette, whom, they were—incorrectly—convinced, was the primary influence at court) for all the nation’s ills.

How do you feel about the various film adaptations of Marie Antoinette’s life?

Like I need a few aspirin and a stiff drink. The ones I have seen are excruciatingly painful to me because I’m one of those filmgoers who enjoys historical accuracy with her entertainment. I love a good costume drama (and sometimes the movies get the costuming fairly right), but the combination of rampant miscasting and the stereotypical (and wildly incorrect) one-note portrayals of Marie Antoinette as an insensitive, selfish, bubbleheaded fashionista, drive me crazy.

The best I can say about the movie adaptations is: please don’t consider them history in terms of assuming that the scenes in the movie accurately depict the truth or reality of the events; just accept the films as entertainment; and if they spur a viewer to learn more about the real Marie Antoinette and her marriage, her friends, and the events of her life, that’s all to the good.

What’s next for Juliet Grey?

BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE is the first novel in a trilogy, so I am working on the next two novels, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW (which spans the years 1774-1789; from the time Marie Antoinette becomes queen of France to aftermath of the fall of the Bastille in July 1789. The final book in the series, (title TBA), picks up where book 2 leaves off and carries the reader through to Marie Antoinette’s execution on October 16, 1793. After that—well, Madame du Barry kept threatening to steal the show in BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, and I have read so much about her life (there’s quite a lot that people don’t know, beyond the fact that she was considered a rapacious royal mistress), that I am aching to tell her story. I think it would be great fun to show some of the same incidents I depict in BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, from the other woman’s perspective!

Which novels have been your "dream job" -- or, as actors say, when asked about their favorite role, is it "the one I'm working on"?


Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Congratulations, Juliet! What a dream come true, to have a canvas big enough to tell this amazingly complex story! Marie Antoinette has fascinated me ever since her court opened Bond of Fire, my historical novel. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this one. :-)

6:26 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Oooh, I want to hear about Bond of Fire!

6:57 PM  
Blogger Anna Gibson said...

I can't wait for book two of the trilogy! I adored the first book, which was such an engrossing and refreshing read, especially in terms of the characterization of Louis and Antoinette. And especially Louis, for he rarely gets a decent treatment in film or novel.

10:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online