Backstory

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 propaganda 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 inDays 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 because 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 Antoinette 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 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, although it was nothing as major as a circumcision. 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 less well-known (but equally fact-based) events of the characters’ lives. For example, the silk merchants of Lyon really did pay a call on Mesdames asking for their support after Marie Antoinette 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, both 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, despite all 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 third book 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, depending on the source. 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 third novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy), his diaries were heavily redacted.

However, enough of Fersen’s own words remain that 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 that he had 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.