I researched the lives of Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis Auguste, the dauphin of France for a nonfiction book; and the more I learned about the pair of them the more I realized how maligned they were. In essence, they became scapegoats for all the ills in France. Up until about 15 years before their marriage, their respective countries had been enemies for 950 years. Always perceived as the outsider, Marie Antoinette was blamed for everything from bad harvests and crop failure to the national deficit when France’s treasury was already bankrupted by Louis XV’s government by the time Marie Antoinette arrived. In fact, the biggest reason for France’s empty coffers during her husband’s reign was the enormous amount of money spent on military aid to the American colonists during our revolution.
There have been many books written about Marie Antoinette and this period in French history. What would you say sets your book (and the rest of the upcoming trilogy) apart from what is already out there?
Becoming Marie Antoinette is devoted completely to her early years (from age 10-18), a period that many novelists gloss over or rush through in order to get to (or spend more time at) Versailles. I didn’t have to rush because have two more novels to develop all of that. In Becoming Marie Antoinette I show the events and years that shaped the girl who became the woman, the queen, of the later years and explode many of the stereotypes depicted in some of those novels. No other portrayals show in detail, if at all, the extensive makeover she had to undergo as a preteen. That information was even hard to find in her biographies. I hunted for the names of each of the men responsible for transforming the archduchess Maria Antonia and where possible tried to find portraits of them because it was really important to me to be as accurate as possible, even though I was writing a novel. It was a matter of pride with me to see how much I could find without having to make it up. Another thing that sets my personal depiction of Marie Antoinette apart is that she did not go from heedless to headless, as some of her portrayers would lead people to believe. She was not a bubbleheaded spendthrift. Nothing exists in a vacuum. I was convinced that there was a rationale behind everything she did and in my novel when she behaves a certain way I make sure to justify it.
Another thing that sets Becoming Marie Antoinette and the rest of the trilogy apart is that while most of the events of the books are grounded in historical fact, in addition to the “greatest hits,” which people will expect to see, and which deserve to be there (things like births, deaths, her husband’s coronation), what intrigued me most as I did my research were the little things, or snatches of actual conversations or diary entries; and I tried to incorporate them as often as possible. My research materials are peppered with post notes saying “use this!” stuck to them.
What has been the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
Managing the scope of the era’s history—politically and socially, because I wasn’t just dealing with France, but the Western European and North American colonial stage at the time. I had to be sure to keep it centered on Marie Antoinette’s story, but because it’s told from her point of view and she’s only a girl during Becoming Marie Antoinette (spanning the age from about 10 to 18), she only has a limited view of this vast world and there’s also only so much she would know. But I had to let my readers know what else was going on at the time and why her marriage to the dauphin of France was so vital to world politics. I kept thinking about that Zen-like image of the beat of the butterfly’s wing that eventually causes a tsunami. Actually, I lie. I just thought of that as I wrote this. But it’s just as apt.
Was there anything that you learned about Marie Antoinette during the research process that surprised you?
I had to omit some of the references to her numerous charitable and philanthropic gifts because they weren’t organic to the narrative, but she was tremendously compassionate and wore her heart on her sleeve. Marie Antoinette has been wildly misrepresented by textbook writers as insensitive to the suffering of her people—the woman who supposedly exclaimed “Let them eat cake!” when she heard the poor had no bread, although that characterization couldn’t be farther from the truth. Anyone who knew anything about Marie Antoinette’s character would know she never could have said it, or anything remotely like it. For the record, the actual phrase is qu’ils mangent de la brioche and if it was said at all, it predates Marie Antoinette by several generations, possibly uttered by the Spanish-born Maria Theresa, wife of Louis Quatorze, the Sun King.) In any case, during my research I repeatedly came across references to Marie Antoinette’s charity.
Can you give us an idea of what we will be seeing in the rest of the trilogy?
The middle novel, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, covers the glamorous, if turbulent, years of her reign (including all the events of the notorious affair of the diamond necklace), picking up with the death of Louis XV in 1774 and the ascension of her husband Louis XVI to the throne, and ending in July, 1789 with the fall of the Bastille and the immediate events of its aftermath. The final book in the trilogy takes us from 1789 right up to the scaffold with Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793. And . . . did she consummate her passion for Count Axel von Fersen? You’ll have to wait for the next two books to see how I develop this most controversial and disputed of historical love stories.
Juliet Grey has extensively researched European Royal History and is a particular devotee of Marie Antoinette. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and southern Vermont. You can visit her website for more information about the book.
Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court