Interview with Juliet Grey

Inspired by her latest novel, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, I posed these questions to the author, Juliet Grey, on writing and the French Revolution. If you haven’t picked up this novel yet, I highly recommend it (along with the first novel in the series, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE).

Did you find the writing easier, harder or much the same between Becoming Marie Antoinette and Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow?

BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE had a more straightforward plot than DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW. It was a coming of age story, which spanned fewer years in the life of Marie Antoinette. DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW covered fifteen years of her reign and highlighted many seminal events that she was either not comprehensively aware of (if she knew about them at all), or else was not a witness to them. So it was more challenging to present that information to the reader in a way that provided the historical context of these events and the backdrop against which the prelude to the French Revolution played itself out. There was a lot of background information that had to be organically incorporated. For example, the events of the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace were crucial to the narrative, but Marie Antoinette had no idea what was going on until suddenly the court jewelers showed up and demanded payment for a gaudy and wildly expensive of jewelry she never purchased and had in fact refused to buy from them years earlier. The con had been going on for years. She wasn’t present during the hearing and the trial, either. But my readers needed to know how the queen’s reputation was traduced and how the innocent victim in the scam was transformed into the villainess. People were so willing by this point to believe the worst about Marie Antoinette. Plus, the introduction of the third-person narrative in the necklace sections afforded me the fabulous opportunity to create the characters of the key players in the scheme. The Cardinal was an utter sleaze and the so-called comtesse de Lamotte-Valois was incredibly wily and utterly without scruples; so they were tremendous fun to write.

How did you determine the starting and stopping points of each novel?

Three major turning points of Marie Antoinette’s life were very easy to identify. When I first conceived of writing her story as a trilogy I already knew my beginning and ending points for each book. BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE ends with her becoming queen upon the death of her husband’s grandfather Louis XV in May of 1774 and her husband Louis XVI’s immediate ascension to the throne. DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, picks up the narrative in May, 1774 with her early days as queen and spans the next 15 years through mid-July, 1789 and the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille in Paris. Although the winds of change had been blowing for some time, the fall of the Bastille is a seminal moment in French history and readers tend to view it as the turning point that marked the beginning of the revolution. The final novel in the trilogy, THE LAST OCTOBER SKY, opens on October 5, 1789 with the Parisian fishwives’ march on Versailles to demand bread (and of course there were many more participants than the poissardes, who later disavowed a connection to the riots that ensued at the palace the following day). The narrative of THE LAST OCTOBER SKY ends on October 16, 1793 with Marie Antoinette’s execution, a purely judicial murder.

Marie Antoinette is portrayed sympathetically—what do you feel she could have done to avoid her fate, specifically during the years covered in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow?

One thing Marie Antoinette did almost as soon as she became queen was to alter some of the rigid etiquette and protocol at court that had been instituted by Louis XIV and had been in place for over a century. In order to prevent the nobility from having too much time on their hands, countless idle hours at their country estates that they could have spent fomenting rebellion against the crown, Louis presaged Tom Sawyer’s convincing his friends that whitewashing the fence for him was not only fun but a privilege. The Sun King brought the nobility from their various far-flung demesnes to Versailles where they became courtiers at his beck and call, living and dying for social preferment according to a strictly codified etiquette he created, happy to reside in tiny, poorly ventilated rooms instead of at their magnificent country estates in the boonies, just to be at the heart of the action, at the seat of power. So, you had powerful nobles vying to perform the most mundane tasks such as handing the monarch his nightshirt. This became the established way of life at Versailles and both the royal family and the courtiers spent every waking moment adhering to the rigid court etiquette.

But Marie Antoinette had always chafed at routine and thought the etiquette was silly. She saw no reason to be followed about by an entourage of, say 35, women, who had been granted the privilege to shadow her merely because of their aristocratic birthright or as thanks for a certain number of years of service to the crown. These established and entrenched courtiers hadn’t liked her when she was dauphine. Many of them had mocked her and she knew it. So why, now that she was queen and should get to make the rules and decide who to spend her day with, should she be forced to surround herself with such toxic people? Unfortunately, these aristocrats felt that they had earned the privilege to serve the queen and didn’t much like it being taken away from them. When Marie Antoinette decided that as queen she only wanted to have a train of three or four trusted attendants who were good friends, rather than a crowd of sinecured hangers-on, her vast entourage felt extremely slighted. Their perquisites had been denied to them. The nobles felt the same way when Marie Antoinette convinced her husband to discontinue the grands couverts—the public meals. For years, certain courtiers had been granted the privilege of watching their sovereigns dine. When this perq was stripped away, they became disgruntled. Worst of all, after Louis gave Marie Antoinette le Petit Trianon in June 1774 to use as her own personal villa, and she chose to turn it into an exclusive retreat to which only a select few, instead of the entire court, were welcome, the excluded courtiers began to badmouth the queen, spreading vicious gossip and innuendo about her. The libelles (the slanderous pamphlets accusing Marie Antoinette of fornication and adultery with her ladies-in-waiting and with her brother-in-law, the comte d’Artois), began right under her nose at Versailles. In fact, the French Revolution began in the salons of the literate, enlightened aristocracy. If Marie Antoinette had not deliberately snubbed the courtiers who, admittedly, were so rude to her when she was dauphine and had taken the high road instead of exacting social revenge, she may not have won adherents amid this largely anti-Austrian bastion, but she might have been able to neutralize her earliest, and deadliest, enemies.

Do you feel that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were doomed from the start due to the state of the monarchy they inherited, or could they have forestalled the coming Revolution?

Louis and Marie Antoinette inherited a treasury that was already broke. And Louis made a terrible mistake at the beginning of his reign. Thinking it would win him friends he recalled the Parlements (France’s 12 regional judicial bodies whose job it was to ratify a king’s edicts) that his grandfather had dissolved for insubordination toward the end of his reign. Louis XV had a pair of progressive ministers who wanted to levy taxes on France’s clergy and the nobility, who historically did not pay taxes, although they were the two institutions with the money to do so. The men who comprised the Parlements were nobles and clerics, and of course they refused to vote to tax themselves and their brethren. What this meant was that once again the bourgeoisie and the poor got hosed (and not understanding how government worked, these lower classes blamed it on the king.) This happened throughout the reign of Louis XVI every time he tried to do something progressive by asking the aristocracy and the clergy to pay, not just their fair share, but anything!) Louis and Marie Antoinette inherited a mess. Louis XV had bankrupted the treasury to fight the Seven Years War’ (1756-1763), which took place when Marie Antoinette and her husband were little kids. The royals spent money like water. Although the queen was the one, being the foreigner and the outsider, who had the reputation as a spendthrift, in truth, every member of the royal family, plus Louis XV’s mistresses (even before Marie Antoinette came to France) were enormous spenders and lived on credit. Many of them were high stakes gamblers as well. And each branch of the Bourbons had their own little satellite court within Versailles, so there were multiple kitchens, etc., and every time someone would attempt to suggest economizing, a royal who didn’t want their privileges suspended would cry foul and shout that all these servants would be put out of work by the evil schemes of whoever it was who had suggested they tighten their belts. Marie Antoinette’s passion for fashion certainly didn’t help matters, but it also was a drop in the bucket when it came to France’s economic woes. She was the kingdom’s scapegoat, blamed for every hardship that befell France, from bad harvests to bad marriages.

Louis was not a strong ruler. And Marie Antoinette’s mother, the formidable Austrian empress Maria Theresa, kept urging her to control her husband politically. It was widely put about by her detractors that the queen was pulling Louis’ strings, but in fact (much to the empress’s consternation), he allowed Marie Antoinette no political voice in the governance of the kingdom, although she did urge him to make some governmental appointments, most of which were bad ideas. Another thing that contributed to the French Revolution was France’s aid (military and financial) to the American colonies who were staging their revolution against the British. Naturally, the French monarchs did not countenance rebellion against a king; they helped America because it would weaken their mutual enemy, England. The French noblemen who had gone to North America to helm military regiments returned to the Continent with the notions of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in their bellies. The seeds of the French Revloution were sown from the top down. I don’t think there was much that Louis and Marie Antoinette could have done to forestall the French Revolution because every time they tried to give the poorer strata of society a break (by, for example, taxing the clergy and nobility, even nominally), the Parlements would block Louis’ efforts. Then the people would blame the king. And the demagogues would make sure they believed it was the king who didn’t care about their welfare. The average person didn’t know what role the Parlements played in the government. They assumed the king ran everything.

Who was your favorite character to write, and your least favorite?

I have spent the past few years inside Marie Antoinette’s head and have laughed and cried and cheered and despaired right along with her, deeply feeling every emotion she experiences. So it’s hard for her not to be my favorite character. But I also have tremendous sympathy and compassion for Louis. Many historians, and novelists, too, give him short shrift. Although Marie Antoinette may not have had a physical passion for him, she grew to love him very much and I have enjoyed crafting their developing relationship, from tentative teens to mature adults who face the most heart-wrenching decisions of their lives. I even had fun writing the “baddies”—the Cardinal de Rohan and Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois, and every time Jeanne du Barry walked into a scene, she stole it right out from whoever else was in it. As part of my training as an actress I put myself inside the head of every character I write and try to see the scene from their perspective. So I didn’t have a least favorite character to write.

I’m bracing myself for a tear-jerker with the upcoming The Last October Sky—will there be any happy or hopeful moments for Marie Antoinette during the precarious years?

My editor and agent needed Kleenex for THE LAST OCTOBER SKY, as did I when I was writing and revising it. I joked with them that, as we gave away promotional m&ms with review copies of DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, perhaps we should send out promotional tissue packets with the final novel. There are, however, many uplifting moments. When push came to shove during the fnal years (and this is part of the historical record), Marie Antoinette came into her own as a leader. I think in some respects, she really didn’t become a queen, in the regal, take-charge, sense of the job, until after the fall of the Bastille. Louis became despondent and despairing and oftentimes paralytically unable to make a decision. It was Marie Antoinette who took control and tried to orchestrate the royal family’s rescue or escape. So there are many hopeful moments in the novel. Marie Antoinette never gave up. And so, even though the reader already knows the awful denouement, because the queen never stopped trying, and hoping, that indomitable spirit pervades the first-person narrative of THE LAST OCTOBER SKY.

What books do you recommend reading for more in-depth information on this maligned Queen and the French Revolution, fiction or non-fiction?

I researched Marie Antoinette’s life and times extensively and each of the novels in the trilogy has a bibliography in the back of the book. For nonfiction, among the many books about Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser and Evelyne Lever have written exemplary biographies of her and Olivier Bernier has edited a collection of her letters. Simon Schama’s Citizens provides a comprehensive background to the French Revolution. Stanley Loomis also wrote a double biography of Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen titled The Fatal Friendship; and Frances Mossiker’s book about the affair of the necklace (titled The Queen’s Necklace, followed by a lengthy subtitle) includes trial testimony as well as delineating just how comprehensive this scam of the eighteenth century was. I tend to stay away from reading other fiction that is set in the same time period I am writing in, while I am working on a project, and I always feel that if I mention one colleague’s novel, another colleague will wonder why I didn’t mention him or her. But I will say that Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud does an excellent job of portraying the atmosphere of the revolution and segments of French society that are not the primary focus of my Marie Antoinette novels, as well as one of the members of the royal family, the king’s sister Madame Elisabeth, who is only a minor character in my trilogy.

After this trilogy is concluded, what is your next writing project?

I am currently researching my next nonfiction book (due to my editor next year), to be titled INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A DEMIMILLENNIUM OF UNHOLY MISMATRIMONY. Because nearly every royal union was arranged, there is never a shortage of mismatches!

Novels or non-fiction: Which is more enjoyable to write?

Each feeds a different part of my soul, or my brain, and writing in each discipline helps strengthen the other one. I truly enjoy both equally. I’m a history geek and a research wonk. I love learning new things and discovering royals I never knew about, or about whom I had misconceptions, often finding out that everything I’d been taught in school about a given person was propaganda, skewed by history’s winners. And that feeds my fiction and gives me idea about who to write novels about. I fell in love with Marie Antoinette and Louis when I researched their marriage for my nonfiction book (a 2010 release from NAL) NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES. The more I learned about the pair of them the more I discovered that they’d been much maligned by their contemporaries and by subsequent generations of historians. I felt I “had” to tell Marie Antoinette’s story—to set the historical record straight, to give her a voice. And the only way to do that, freely and creatively, was through the medium of fiction, where I could defend the actual facts from her perspective.

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