Sunday, March 6, 2011

Research! Indulge Me in a Moment's Historical Nerdiness About Marie Antoinette

The Preamble:
I’m a history nerd. Overall, I’d say my preferences are in the world before the Industrial Revolution. If asked to choose a favorite era, I lean toward Medieval but that is a DIFFICULT answer to give since medieval is only narrowly the front-runner. Spanish Colonial, Ancient Greco Roman, Samurai-era Japan, Victorian England, Ancient Egyptian-- I can’t think of a time period I don’t find fascinating. 
My wip is a time travel**, part of which takes place in pre-Revolutionary France. I already knew, from earlier stories I’d written involving history, that the vast majority of what I learned would not be a part of this book. That’s the nature of research. Most of it never makes it into any part of any story... it’s just for me, so I can stroke my invisible beard and go, “Hmmm, fascinating... I never KNEW that.”
**When I first realized the main characters in my story would time travel, I was SO. EXCITED!!! Time travel means history, and history means research! Research is extremely fun!
The Historical Nerdiness:
When people think of the Louvre, they tend to think about the Mona Lisa...or that giant glass pyramid thing. But before it was the most famous museum in France, it was once a fortress-turned-palace for France’s monarchs. Moreover, the Louvre eventually joined the ever-expanding Tuileries Palace,*** where Marie Antoinette made her Parisian debut, and where she and her family were imprisoned during the early part of the French Revolution.
***Tuileries was demolished in 1883, and as a history nerd I find this incredibly sad.
Which brings me to Marie Antoinette herself. Fortunately, I happen to have a copy of my favorite Marie Antoinette biography handy! *flips through MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY by Antonia Fraser* 
Born in 1755, Marie Antoinette was betrothed at age fourteen, married by proxy a year later, married in FACT a MONTH later (although by all accounts the marriage went unconsummated until she was 22. What went on between the royal couple for those seven years?! Okay that’s an ENTIRELY different blog post!!). I can’t help but think back to myself at age fifteen-- or think of ANYONE at age fifteen-- and wonder what it must have been like for Marie Antoinette. She was expected to behave according to the protocol (and under the scrutiny of) the court at Versailles, the most famous and glamourous court in Europe during the 18th century. Marie Antoinette especially would have found this difficult, having grown up in the much more lax Hapsburg court in Austria. She came under criticism for organizing activities such as picnics and sleigh rides. Versailles was an extremely formal court.
At aged nineteen she was crowned queen. Although some believe her selfish, cold, even heartless, after reading through primary sources, especially letters describing her acts of charity, I can’t agree. History is written by the victors, and in many ways she was a political scapegoat and an easy target. That she loved gambling, dancing, entertaining, and shopping is rarely without mention in historical texts, and I’m not contesting that she did! But not many people know that she spent less money than many other royals of the time, and she actually preferred the unobtrusive life she created for herself at Petit Trianon to life at Versailles. Some might insist that her frivolous personality inspired her enemies to attack her. This view is certainly understandable, and her pleasure-loving attitude absolutely gave her enemies fuel for the exaggerrated and often outright false libeles. However, she was expected to maintain a fashionable court-- Versailles was extravagant in excess, renowned for its lavishness and ceremony. She was villainized for being a part of this system, but when she tried to simplify dress or loosen protocol, she was attacked as well. I can’t help but wonder if there would have been any way for her to win.
I’m not saying she was a perfect queen by any stretch of the imagination, but even had she been, I feel the libeles would have turned her into a monster regardless. It was the entire royal system at Versailles, the maintenance of grandeur that could no longer be sustained, that’s what her attackers needed to find a figurehead for. Whoever had stepped into this role would have been unable to stop the Versaille machine... and being trapped inside it, it might have been difficult to avoid a similar fate.
As Antonia Fraser states:
“Individual acts of benevolence, private philanthropy, shedding an aura of kindness about her, above all pleasing-- from childhood on, her love of pleasing people was one of her marked characteristics--all this was very much to Marie Antoinette’s taste.”
This statement adds a dimension to Marie Antoinette that isn’t often seen. And as for the French Queen being fond of life in Versailles, Ms. Fraser’s comments sum it up best:
“Ironically enough, the Queen, so often seen as the epitome of the ancien régime in all its foolish, stilted splendour, actually disliked such ways. It was the life of Versailles that was going out of date, not that of the Petit Trianon.”
So, I love history! I tend to research as much as I possibly can, out of the sheer joy of it, and also, because the more I absorb, the more comfortable I am writing a given time period. Also, have I mentioned research is extremely fun?! So ANYWAY I hope anyone reading this wasn’t bored to tears!


  1. This is an awesome post!! And I'm wondering too, was the fact that she was foreign part of what made her such an ideal scapegoat? BECAUSE she wasn't French, and figureheaded this excess, it made her a bigger target to the common people OF France who were suffering?

    When you talk about Marie Antoinette it makes me want to learn more about her! Your enthusiasm is infectious! :D

  2. Oh wow! Your research puts mine to shame! :D I'm doing the French Revolution at Uni, and yeah, Marie was a pretty cool chica (aside from, you know, the headlessness and ignorance of the poor, etc). But I went to Versailles a few years ago, and I can totally understand why she'd be so ignorant - I mean, the place is like a country in itself! As if you'd ever want to slum it away from there!

    PS. Time travel + history lovin' FTW!

  3. I'm a huge history fanatic too... but I almost hesitate to call it non-fiction because, as you said, history is written by the victors. I think it's unfortunate that history is often so biased. I love this blog post... I want to hug it and give it a noogie.

  4. History!!! Yay I love history too! And pre-Revolutionary is my favorite as well! Loved the post :)

  5. I love history too.
    Your research on Marie Antoinette was fascinating. Good luck with your novel.
    I had an idea for an upper MG I could set at her court. It is a long way down the list of things I'm going to get to any-time-soon.
    I couldn't say which period I wouldn't want to know more about but there are many I'm glad I didn't live through :)

  6. This was a fascinating post. I love history, and reading this kind of stuff is so consuming *__* Thank you for sharing!

  7. Amalia- YES most historians agree that being foreign didn't do Marie Antoinette any favors. She was ridiculed and treated as an outsider for her foreign mannerisms, and thanks to the scornful nickname L'Autrichienne (among other things) her adversaries never let the French people forget her foreign birth. And thanks!! This kind of thing is oftentimes more fun to write than it is to read, but I couldn't help myself!

    Caitlin- Thanks! And research is a little TOO much fun for me lol!

    Wendy- Yet another thing we both love <3 And I agree, often history is so influenced by those who write it, biases supersede fact. Even looking at primary sources and memoirs, those are written by people who sympathize with one thing or another. It's a challenge to find truth!

    KT- Woot! Hi5 to a fellow history-lover!

    Elaine- Thanks! I totally agree about not wanting to actually LIVE through many time periods in history... though I wouldn't mind a visit ;) Good luck with your writing!

    Lori- Thank you!! Research IS consuming. It's easy to get lost in it!

  8. Women are always the scapegoats. Helen, Marie, Mary (all of them lmao).

    However, it's very tricky to deal with history in literature. You have to walk a fine line between what is really history, and what everyone else believes history to be. Unfortunately, if you portray Marie too kindly, no one will take you seriously. It sucks. I've run into the same issue with my own research.

  9. Interesting post! I love that time period. I've always felt that Marie Antoinette was unfairly criticized. Did you see that movie they made about her a few years ago? I felt like that was a fairly honest portrayal (I'm sure they made lots up, but her character was believable).

    Also, I gave you an award on my blog. You can claim it here :-)

  10. Hey Diana. I have an award for you over at my blog.


  11. Very interesting. Marie Antoinette is a fascinating character to me too. I love doing research for my books - I learn so much. I do prefer reading histories in novel form though - but that's not really a good thing because the author is free to take creative license.
    Anyway thanks for sharing. Love your enthusiasm and your traveling through time book sounds way cool.

  12. And this is why I don't do historical. I enjoy the cliff notes version on History Channel but beyond that, not for me. But wow! You really love it and THAT is why you'll be great at historical novel. How is that going BTW?