Juliet Grey on Writing
Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow
It provided great pleasure, but also left me with a measure of sadness, to continue the story of Marie Antoinette’s life in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, because of course we know the tragic denouement. I felt that part of my role in this middle novel in the trilogy was to show how Marie Antoinette’s journey continued along its fatal path. It’s clear from the book’s epigraph, taken from a quote at the time she ascended to the throne as the queen consort of Louis XVI, that she was considered a liability. Add that to all the animosity that had built up against her, particularly within the French court, during the four years she was dauphine—an effervescent teenage girl making enemies right and left as she pushed with all her might against the rigid etiquette of Versailles.
One can go back even further to the 950 years of enmity that existed between France and Marie Antoinette’s native Austria, a political albatross hung around her pale and slender neck almost as soon as her betrothal to the future Louis XVI was arranged. When her mother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, sent her to France in April 1770, she exhorted her youngest daughter to make the French love her. With a few notable exceptions, that admiration came mostly during the late reign of Louis XV, who by then was roundly despised by his subjects. The charming (and morally upright) strawberry-blond dauphine and her husband were seen as the great young hopes for France’s future.
But Marie Antoinette’s popularity soon faded as the propa- ganda spread that she was not comporting herself with the dignity of a French queen and was, moreover, behaving like a royal mistress by decking herself out in increasingly elaborate jewels, gowns, and other accoutrements such as the outrageous (and outrageously expensive) towering “pouf” coiffures. Her subjects, convinced by propaganda disseminated from within Versailles itself, published by nobles she had angered by ostracizing them from her intimate circle, soon saw her as the queen of excess.
Marie Antoinette’s behavior predates the study and practice of psychoanalysis, but in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow I aimed to convey the genesis of her extravagance and what lay behind her increasing mania for pleasure. It was of course primarily a substitute for what she most desired—a child, especially a son and heir—not only for the security of the Bourbon dynasty, but be- cause she adored children. Her life might have taken a different trajectory had she conceived early in her marriage. Instead, her first child, a daughter, was born in the waning days of 1778, a frustrating and embarrassing eight and a half years after her nuptials—ample time for her enemies to recast the religiously devout and faithfully wed young queen as a promiscuous hedonist.
What happened on her wedding night was immortalized by Louis in his hunting journal with a single word: rien. Nothing—although the reference was really a notation that the bridegroom had not killed any woodland creatures that day because he’d not gone hunting. Not only was Louis shy and uncomfortable around his new bride, but he may have suffered from a mild deformity of the penis known as phimosis, where the foreskin is too tight to retract. This condition made intercourse, and even an erection, painful.
Historians’ opinions are divided as to whether Louis suffered from phimosis and underwent a minor procedure (not as radical as circumcision) in late 1773 to correct the defect (for narrative reasons I placed the event in 1774, after he became king); or whether his inability to make love to Marie Antoinette was purely psychological or psychosomatic. The latter is harder to believe because Louis admitted that he both loved and respected Marie An- toinette and found her very beautiful. While a number of present-day scholars vehemently dispute the phimosis speculation as being the pet theory of Marie Antoinette’s twentieth-century biographer, the Freudian Stefan Zweig, they cannot explain away the preponderance of correspondence that came out of the Bourbon court at the time. This included not merely the dispatch from the Spanish ambassador to his sovereign graphically discussing the issue of Louis’s penis (which could be dismissed as gossip), but a number of letters written between Marie Antoinette and her mother discussing whether or not Louis was prepared to submit to the operation, and the medical opinions of the various court physicians on the subject. The language of that correspondence most clearly refers to a physical problem. Whether it was compounded by psychological and emotional issues is also a possibility. Unfortunately, Louis’s boyhood tutor, the duc de la Vauguyon, had instilled in him a hatred of women and a particular distrust of Austrian females. But by 1773, the dauphin and dauphine had become close friends, and presented a united front against the duc’s malevolent influence. This was even truer by the time they ascended the throne in 1774.
The subject of Louis’s phimosis and how it was treated is one of a couple of controversial topics I explore in this novel. I do believe that he suffered from a mild physical deformity and that he underwent a corrective procedure. The operation detailed in the novel is taken from a procedure performed in France around 1780 so it is about as accurate a description as one can get of what Louis’s medical treatment might have been like.
Another of my aims in writing the Marie Antoinette trilogy was to convey the humanity (and sometimes not) within these historical figures. Too often they have been depicted in film and literature as archetypes, stereotypes, or dusty relics of an era long past. As I breathed life into characters who to some readers may be little more than names from a history book, I saw them as vibrant and vital, complex and flawed. It was also my intention to depict some of the lesser-known (but equally fact-based) events of their lives. For example, the silk merchants of Lyon really did pay a call on Mesdames asking for their support after Marie Antoi- nette began to dress almost entirely in the muslin gaulles; Marie Antoinette really did suffer a terrible fall and hit her head, and Madame Royale’s shocking reaction to her mother’s injury, as well as the conversation she had with her father about whether he would have preferred a son instead of her, really happened. I was stunned when I first read about the incident in the many biographies because it revealed so much about the characters of the precocious and envious Madame Royale and the king, who was a tremendously sentimental man. Louis indeed adored his little girl from the moment of her birth and never resented her gender, de- spite the immense pressure upon both him and Marie Antoinette to produce a son and heir. The fact that both of them were such sentimental, vulnerable, and fairly hands-on parents made them quite anomalous, especially for royals, even in the Age of Enlightenment. In another fascinating moment “ripped from real life,” the queen did indeed summon Jean-Louis Fargeon to le Petit Trianon to create a perfume that captured the essence of her private idyll (I own a replica of the fresh, floral scent, which made my research all the more redolent!). And she did ask Fargeon to develop a unique fragrance for a man she described as “virile as one can possibly be,” that phrase, in translation of course, taken from the perfumer’s own diary. In a subsequent event, to be depicted in The Last October Sky, the third novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, many years later the aroma of that custom-made toilet water will come back to haunt Fargeon’s nostrils.
One of the central aspects of this novel is the developing relationship between Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette. Historically, there has been some controversy as to how far it went, whether it remained strictly platonic, whether (and when) it may have blossomed into a physical love affair, and whether Marie Antoinette ever violated her deeply held marriage vows and consummated her passion for Fersen.
I have a cardinal rule about writing historical fiction: If it could have happened, bolstered by solid research, then it’s fair game to be included in a novel. Stanley Loomis, in The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen, and the Flight to Varennes, offers enough compelling evidence for a relationship between them that may indeed have eventually been consummated. Biographers Antonia Fraser, Stefan Zweig, Vincent Cronin, and André Castelot share that opinion. We have the culture of the eighteenth century to thank for the plethora of diaries and memoirs left to posterity. Some may be more reliable than others. After Marie Antoinette’s death, Fersen’s beloved sister Sophie, to whom he was especially close, burned a number of his letters; and at some point (perhaps after his gruesome murder on June 20, 1810, which took place exactly nineteen years to the day from the royal family’s fateful flight to Varennes in June of 1791, an event that will be dramatized in The Last October Sky), his diaries were heavily redacted. However, enough of Fersen’s own words remain to obliquely hint at a relationship with Marie Antoinette that went far deeper than the proper bounds of a common friendship. We have his declaration to Sophie that he would never wed because he could not be united with the one woman he really loved and who loved him in return. As historians cannot document any abiding yet for some reason inappropriate or equally illicit relationship with another woman (his other love affairs, regardless of their duration, were fairly inconsequential by comparison), the conclusion is viable (certainly by a novelist), that he gave his heart and soul (and the case can be made for giving his body) to Marie Antoinette.
There is no denying that Fersen risked his life more than once to save the queen—and the king, of course, whom he also admired, possibly making his transgression all the more guilt-inducing.
The events that I used to build the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen are rooted in fact. As for the issue of privacy in a royal court, Marie Antoinette, who detested being surrounded by an enormous entourage while she was dauphine, immediately changed the rules when she became queen, reducing the size of her retinue (most of whom had been assigned to her upon her arrival in 1770) to a handful of trusted attendants. Moreover, she was roundly criticized for turning le Petit Trianon into her exclusive haven. Whereas Versailles had traditionally been open to the people, she had signage posted on the gates of her little château and about its acreage stipulating that entrance to the premises was by permission of the queen alone, and that all visitors had to be escorted inside by her servants or attendants.
The existence of the mechanical mirrored window shades that closed off the view inside to all would-be trespassers or intruders, who would find themselves staring at their own reflec- tions if they dared to pry, is a fact. At le Petit Trianon, therefore, it was simple enough to dismiss the servants from a room, to enjoy private tête-à-têtes with her confidants of both sexes, or even with a room full of people. It was precisely this exclusivity, and the maddening notion that all sorts of goings-on were taking place at le Petit Trianon to which they were not invited, which gave rise to the rumors spread by her detractors of Marie Antoi- nette’s rampant debauchery there. Ironic, isn’t it, how the very aristocrats who derided the queen for having a personal fairyland were so desperate to secure an invitation. They never received one because Marie Antoinette, who knew what was being said about her, did not feel the need to surround herself with, in twenty-first-century parlance, “toxic” people.
But le Petit Trianon was indeed a private idyll where Marie Antoinette could truly be herself. Insofar as being able to consummate a romance there with Axel von Fersen, a lawyer would no doubt concede that she had both motive and opportunity.
The more I considered what is essentially a love triangle with the queen at its apex (because I do believe that by the time Axel returned to France in 1778 Marie Antoinette and Louis had grown to love each other in a quiet, solid way), the more the three of them began to remind me of another trio of royals: King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Although those archetypal characters (who may have been actual historical figures) are En- glish, their story was first set down by Chrétien de Troyes, a French romance writer in the Middle Ages. The elements of Guinevere and Lancelot’s star-crossed love affair, and their shared affection for Arthur, as well as Arthur’s deep respect for Lancelot, are also present in the Louis/Antoinette/Fersen triangle.
At bottom is a very human dynamic that has played itself out countless times in myriad marriages, along with the woman’s struggle to reconcile the parts of herself that are satisfied by each of the men: the physical passion she finds with a handsome soul mate, and the solidity and devotion of a faithful husband to whom she is not sexually attracted. She must also battle the demons of guilt, betrayal, and remorse that cannot fail to rear their gargoyle-like heads once she has made the difficult decision to violate the marriage vows she had previously held so sacred.
Although Marie Antoinette was raised from the cradle to despise adulterers (because her father had a mistress, a relationship that deeply wounded her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa), I believe she ultimately became one. I imagine the emotional cost (not to mention the obvious risks) must have been enormous for her, to have spent her entire life up to a point with an unshakable view that is finally shattered by her own volition.
As to the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the French system of justice at the time worked in a fairly arcane manner. Defendants were arrested and incarcerated without being told what they were accused of or who their accusers were. They could hire lawyers but their attorneys were not permitted to be present during the inquisitions; they could only publish trial briefs which were based on hearsay (and which in this case were truly sensational). These trial briefs were little more than professionally penned scandal sheets that sought to exonerate their cli- ents by influencing not only the magistrates of the Parlement, the region’s judicial body, but the public as well—a public that was entirely ignorant of the facts of the case being investigated and tried.
To answer the inevitable question, “How many of the events of this book really happened?” nearly all of them are based on the historical record, both the larger picture as well as many of the more intimate details regarding the events of the characters’ interrelationships, with the exception of the sexual relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, where, as a novelist, I chose to explore the possibility propounded by numerous biographers that their friendship blossomed into an affair. Although this position is controversial, when all is said and done, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is a work of historical fiction.
Yet their friendship, as well as the other interrelationships in the novel, has been thoroughly researched. In some instances I even put actual quotes into my characters’ mouths; die-hard Marie Antoinette aficionados may spot them. To that end, much of the correspondence in the novel is based on the genuine letters as well. In a couple of cases I moved things around; for example, the letter that opens chapter four was in reality written exactly a year earlier. And with regard to the events leading up to and surrounding the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the movements of the key and supporting players are so complicated they could merit an entire novel of their own. So I truncated the timeline just a bit and excised a few of the supernumeraries because they weren’t germane to Marie Antoinette’s knowledge of events.
For narrative flow, I also combined the circumstances of two of Marie Antoinette’s miscarriages into a single tragedy. In actuality, the miscarriage brought on by the coach ride was a separate incident from the one that occurred on her birthday. And Marie Antoinette’s renovation of rooms within her own apartment at Versailles for Axel von Fersen, complete with a Swedish stove, occurred in October 1787, rather than during the spring.
A third aim in writing Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow was to set forth some of the real reasons France was financially bankrupt by the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789. Discontent had existed for well over a generation—for several decades, in fact, going all the way back to Louis XV’s expenditures on the Seven Years’ War (1756–63); although it was his mistresses’ ex- travagances, particularly those of Madame de Pompadour, that angered the French just as much because these were tangible, vis- ible reflections of excess: the clothes, the jewels, the amount of money lavished on furnishings and interior design, and of course the construction of le Petit Trianon, which later became a code phrase for the debauchery that was corrupting the nation, thanks to the outrageous behavior that the anti–Marie Antoinette propa- gandists ascribed to the queen.
Both Louis XV and Louis XVI emptied the treasury to fight foreign wars, which cost the French exponentially more than any royal mistress (or Marie Antoinette) ever spent, even at the zenith of their acquisitiveness. Americans might want to look long and hard at this period of history because if Louis XVI had not supplied the colonists with so much financial and military aid, including providing soldiers, sailors, and ships, throwing the might of France’s navy into their struggle for liberty, the British might have ultimately prevailed.
This decision cost the French crown in more ways than one. Many of their aristocrats fighting in North America returned not only victorious, but infused with the spirit of liberty, watering the seedlings that had already begun to sprout in the fashionable salons and coffeehouses of Paris and behind the gilded paneling of the Palais Royal—spearheaded by the king’s cousins, the duc d’Orléans and his son, the even more ambitious duc de Chartres, who inherited his father’s title in 1785. Their radical ideas were bolstered by the writings of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that all men had equal rights under God, no matter the circumstances of their birth.
By July 14, 1789, the storm clouds of revolution had already gathered over Paris, but just a few leagues away at Versailles, the monarchs were convinced that the republican fervor was no more than a temporary ill wind. How they met the realization that the world as they had always known it was changing all about them, with a velocity they neither predicted nor were equipped to handle, will be dramatized in the final novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, The Last October Sky.