Louis XVI: Capet or Bourbon?

In the introduction to my latest release, I give a brief rundown of the dynastic houses of France. Anyone who reads historically based literature pertaining to Europe is probably familiar with several French royal houses. The branches of Angoulême, Anjou, Artois, Burgundy, Orléans, Valois, etc. are prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, and when Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles in 1770, the crown had been firmly in the possession of Bourbons for nearly 200 years. Her husband, Louis XVI, was the fifth king descended from this line, but upon his deposition, he became an ordinary citizen dubbed Louis Capet. Who were these Capets, and what impact did they have on France?

In ancient times, most of the area to the north and west of the Roman Empire was known as Gaul. Many a brave Roman had attempted to conquer the wild occupants of these lands, but it was Julius Caesar who was credited with the formidable accomplishment of subduing the barbarians and bringing order to their uncivilized way of life. Unfortunately, they were resentful of this presumption and recaptured their territories some 500 years later. At this time the largest portion of the natives had come to be known as Franks, the Salian branch of which was led by Childeric I son of Merovech, the namesake of the first dynastic house of France, the Merovingians. Sometime after retaking their homeland from the Romans and defending it against the Visigoths, Childeric sired Clovis I, who eventually united all of the Frankish tribes as one people.

The next dynasty to rise to prominence was that of the Carolingians. The most recognizable name among them is Charlemagne, who turned the land into a thriving center of culture and religion. He not only inherited the position of King but was also appointed Roman Emperor by the papacy. He spent a good portion of his reign defending his birthright, but despite his efforts to keep the land as a whole, upon his death it was quarreled over, divided, and subdivided amongst his descendants, until it reached a similar state of separation as before the unification achieved by Clovis.

For over a century and a half this segregation persisted until Hugh Capet came along and made himself a force to be reckoned with. Born in Paris, he was from a powerful family descended from King Robert I with substantial landholdings in West Francia. Hugh spent the early years of his adulthood establishing a reputation for fairness and allying himself with the Holy Roman Empire. Well regarded by his peers for the “goodness of his soul,” he was eventually elected to the seat of King of the Franks, uniting the splintered factions and making the position a hereditary one, though only attainable by the senior male heirs as the Salic Law, as well as that of primogeniture, was implemented at the same time.

Hugh centered his power base around his birthplace and duchy, Paris, restoring it as the capital and running the kingdom from there. He is held by most historians as the father of modern France, the founder of the Capetian Dynasty, and the common ancestor for many royal houses throughout Europe. The direct Capetian heirs ruled France until 1328 when a crisis of succession ensued, and the House of Valois, a cadet branch, came into ascendancy. From this point on, all of the successors to the throne, no matter which branch of the family they came from, were descended from the House of Capet.

But being from the same bloodline did little to curb the rivals’ desire to wear the crown or diminish their treacherous impulses to attain it. The House of Valois was plagued by internecine strife and commingling of tainted bloodlines for the whole of its tenure, even surrendering the crown to England on a couple of occasions and sparking the Hundred Years’ War. Eventually, Charles VII took charge and won the crown back for France and the Valois, who ruled until 1589. The last Valois, Henri III, was assassinated by a fanatic and was succeeded by Henri IV, the first Bourbon King and the ancestor of Louis XVI, who would be known as Louis Capet after being deposed, which brings us full circle.

Although it was said that Louis disliked the new surname, he lived up to its reputation of grandness and showed great strength during his final tribulations. Many of his actions, or inaction, while he wore the crown would indicate that he was an indecisive and weak ruler, but in his personal life he showed remarkable resolve, his honorable conduct winning him a fair measure of respect and admiration from his detractors. This was how I chose to portray him in INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, and he has become one of my favorite characters to date. Kindle, paperback, and Nook editions of INSATIABLE are available at:

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*This post was originally run at Kim Rendfeld~ Outtakes of a Historical Novelist.

 

How Marie Antoinette Lost Her Head: Death Dealing in 18th Century France

When I think about martial practices in 18th century France, my mind conjures images of swashbuckling pirates and The Three Musketeers. That may be historically inaccurate (The Dumas book is actually set 150 years before Louis-Auguste became King of France!) but the association is ingrained, and you know how hard it is to correct a misconception once it’s stuck. During my research, though, that notion was definitively set to rights, and I was fascinated by the weaponry in use at the time.

Of course, there were swords, which have changed little since their inception and were still prevalent during the time of Louis XVI. In fact, a visitor to Versailles could only be admitted if he were properly dressed, which happened to include a mandatory sword. This may seem counter-intuitive—Why would you want an armed man in such proximity to the royal family?—but those were the rules. In the days of Louis XIV when the court was first moved from Paris to Versailles, this may have been the King’s way of weeding out undesirables (read poor people) but by the time Louis XV came to power, many of these rules had been modified to accommodate the less fortunate to a certain extent. If one were not possessed of the required blade, he could rent one at the gate.

Muskets were also a staple of defense and early versions had been standard military issue in Europe for centuries. Because reloading was a slow and intricate process, complicated by cramped quarters and the confusion of battle, the musket drill was born along with a change in military tactics. Where pikes had been used in the past as offensive weapons, now they were switched to a defensive role. Because reloading of a musket took the undivided attention of its wielder, the pikemen were charged with the responsibility of protecting musketeers engaged in the process. As weaponry continued to evolve and the innovation of the bayonet came about, the involvement of pikemen became less essential.

If it’s such a painstaking process to reload, why not avoid the issue altogether, you ask? One of the coolest weapons I found in my research was a multiple barrel pistol (Later models were called pepperboxes.) designed to do just that. This was a specialty item, which no doubt cost a pretty penny. Like most forward-thinking modifications, it seemed a practical solution to having to reload if one found himself faced with a perilous situation. But as with many such great ideas came great impracticalities. This rare weapon had the nasty little habit of discharging all of the barrels at once or sometimes even exploding and causing more damage to the user than to the intended target. This prospect was so intriguing to me that I had to find a way to include it in my story, even using its drawbacks to my advantage.

The aforementioned arms were mostly used by the military and the well-to-do, who were the only people who really had access to them. When the revolution struck France and the commoners found themselves in need of defense, they stormed the Bastille. The people believed that firearms, ammunition, and gunpowder were being stored there, so they sacked it. When they didn’t find what they expected, they turned to what was available: pitchforks, scythes, cleavers, butcher knives, meat hooks, etc. You name it, it was used as a weapon. During the march of the market women, the participants rode on cannons and talked about carving up the Queen and making cockades from her entrails with whatever knives they had found and carried on their persons. And any historical account of the French Revolution, would be incomplete without the mention of severed heads being borne about on pikes. This happened to one of the Queen’s dearest friends, the Princesse de Lamballe. After her head was bashed in with a hammer then separated from her body with a butcher knife, it was mounted on the end of a pike for all to behold, a veritable trifecta of brutality.

Then there is the mother of all death machines, the guillotine. It may seem brutal, but it was actually designed with the intent to provide a swift and humane death. According to Dr. Guillotin, it was a very simple process:

“The mechanism falls like thunder—the head flies—the blood spurts—the man is no more.”

The guillotine equitably distributed so much justice during the French Revolution that it was nicknamed the National Razor. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the new equality the burgeoning Republic of France was attempting to effect. In its first public demonstration, it carried out judgement against a notorious highway man, the lowest of the low. From there it continued to work its way through all levels of society, eventually reaching all the way to its most privileged and most famous victims, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the former King and Queen of France.

In my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, I use all of the weaponry mentioned in this article, although not always in an expected manner. Kindle, paperback, and Nook editions of INSATIABLE are available at:

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*This post was originally run at The Sign of the Eagle ~ Jess Steven Hughes

Marie Antoinette: Queen of French Fashion

Marie Antoinette was perhaps most iconically known for her sense of style. Although many of the ideas of French fashion we associate with her—the elaborate gowns, towering wigs, and fanciful headpieces—were already in place at Versailles by the time she arrived on the scene, she did take some of the concepts to new heights and bent the rules to make her own way. But she wasn’t always as chic as we have come to regard her.

When fourteen-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia first crossed the River Rhine and arrived at the border of France, she was dressed in the Austrian fashion. The fabrics and cut of her gown were luxurious and very expensive, but Austrians had the reputation for being much more staid and businesslike than their French counterparts. Although the young archduchess was the offspring of the Holy Roman Empress and considered a Daughter of the Caesars—the most high-born of European royalty—she was still looked upon as provincial by the sophisticated French. The first thing they did, before even allowing her to cross into their land, was to strip her of all things Austrian—undergarments, jewelry, hairpins, etc.—and dress her à la française. This meant that nothing from her homeland was to cross into France with her, even her little pug Mops. All of her former belongings were left on the Austrian side of the border, and Maria Antonia, clothed, made-up, and with her hair dressed according to the customs of Versailles, emerged on the French side of the line of demarcation as Dauphine Marie Antoinette. Although this process was meant as more symbolism than fashion statement, she now looked the part of first lady of the most stylish court in Europe.

Anyone who has dealt with a finicky daughter knows what it’s like to go through several changes of clothing in one day. For the new Dauphine, though, it was not persnicketiness but a necessary evil of her position. There was a huge difference between the stylish new gowns she desired to wear and being dressed appropriately for her state duties. When Marie Antoinette woke in the mornings, she went through the steps of her lever–the everyday toilette routine of her rising–during which she was dressed somewhat informally for the pre-noon activities she could not accomplish in her dressing gown. At noon, she went through the process of Chambre–her formal toilette–during which she applied her make up and donned her official court gown in front of whomever had been admitted to Versailles for the day.

These court dresses were very different than the regular gowns in fashion at the time. They were made with heavy traditional fabrics—brocades, satins, and laces—and trimmed with excessively ornate accessories—tulle, bows, tassels, and trains. You name it, it was thrown on there. The panniers required to hold these confections out to their best advantage were nearly twice the size of the ones worn under everyday dresses. There are accounts of women having to enter rooms sideways to accommodate their gowns. The necklines were low-cut and revealing, and the tightly fitted bodices—which lent even more contrast to the bell-shaped skirts—required a corset to be worn underneath.

This seemed to be one of the things that Marie Antoinette objected to the most. There are letters still in existence today in which her mother chastised her over and over again for refusing to wear her corset. When Marie Antoinette became Queen of France, along with her subservience to her elders, her corset was one of the things she cast aside in the name of her newfound independence.

This was also when her relationship with Rose Bertin began in earnest. As Dauphine, Marie Antoinette frequented the dressmaker’s fashionable boutique and occasionally sent for her to come to Versailles. Now they began a more regular association. The couteurière packed up her tools of the trade twice a week and trundled them to the new Queen’s apartments to plan their creations for whatever the upcoming schedule of events had in store. Marie Antoinette also designed many of her own fabrics, usually a light background embroidered with light and airy floral patterns. This custom needlework found its way into Rose Bertin’s designs and many accessories of the Queen’s personal habitations. There were chairs, draperies, even silk wall panels and tables made to her specifications.

Working with the Queen’s hairdresser, Léonard, Mademoiselle Bertin also designed custom poufs—the inner pads and cushions—that supported the towering hairstyles of the time, some of which measured over three feet tall. Although wigs had been a required part of the costume of Versailles since its inception they literally reached new heights during the reign of Louis XVI and were cunningly sculpted to celebrate current events, one of the most famous commemorating the King’s inoculation against smallpox.

Shortly after Louis XVI’s coronation, he gifted his Queen with le Petit Trianon, which became her personal escape from the rigors of her position. Along with discarding the strictures of etiquette, she also put away the detestable corset and opted for simpler gowns that did not require one. Of course there were still state occasions when she had to revert to the overdone court dresses, but left to her own devices, she resorted to the comfort and easiness of poplin, muslin, tulle, or cotton lawn topped with a straw hat to complete the look. She even had a portrait painted dressed in this same simple manner. It sparked an unforeseen controversy, drawing nasty remarks ranging from outrage from courtiers at the Queen being depicted in her nightgown and diminishing the standing of the royals, to the common folk clamoring against her ‘playing at’ being a peasant. Although innocently done, many such unwitting blunders contributed to the disparaging of her character and the vilification of her public image, in part, leading to the downfall of the monarchy and the rise of the French Revolution.

*     *     *

EXCERPT:

As the Austrian party looked on, the teenager was summarily stripped and every last vestige of her homeland discarded. Even her little dog Mops was removed from her possession, and she cried out in surprise in her upset. Finally she stood there, naked and trembling without even her shift to shield her. She brought her hands up to cover the most feminine parts of her anatomy as a sour-faced woman, in charge of her transformation from Austrian to French form of dress, began an impersonal and meticulous inch by inch inspection of her flesh.

Antoine tried to keep her disdain from showing. Was this painstaking process really necessary with so many people in attendance? Surely this part of the ceremony could have been accomplished more quickly and privately. The thought occurred to her that she had probably not been so closely examined in the moments following her birth. It was said that her mother had only paused her paperwork long enough to push Antoine into the world then resumed her signing of documents immediately after. The picture was a silly one and produced a reflexive giggle from the fourteen-year-old, already discomfited over standing so exposed before a roomful of onlookers.

The woman interrupted her prodding to shoot the Austrian girl a reproving glare, mistaking Antoine’s amusement for contempt. She cleared her throat audibly and went on to explain in a haughty tone.

“These strict traditions have their origins in times long past. I assure you that they are completely necessary. They allow us to determine that you are exactly the pure and wholesome bride we are expecting and welcome you to France with great ceremony, leaving your former life behind. Essentially, you are entering on one side as Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, and you shall exit on French soil as Marie Antoinette, Dauphine and future Queen of France. Oh,” she said with a frown, “what is this here?”

Antoine turned and glanced over her shoulder to see what the woman had discovered to provoke the comment. The view of the woman’s dark eyes peering out over the curve of her bottom was almost more than she could bear. Her lips quirked to one side as she stifled her rising giddiness, reluctant to incur another reprimand.

“That’s just a scar left from small pox,” she managed in a normal sounding voice. “I had a mild case when I was a baby. Of course I don’t remember, but now I am immune, which is all to the good, because it means I can’t get infected.”

“Yes, it would be terrible for you to get infected,” the woman said enigmatically, looking up at her charge out of the corner of her eye. But she was still not convinced. “Are you certain? It is shaped somewhat like a bite mark,” she insisted, manipulating the flesh of the surrounding area, making sure it showed no signs of recent infection, no discoloration or seepage.

“My brothers may have been rough with me on occasion, but I don’t recall them ever biting me,” Antoine remarked wryly. Especially on my behind! she added to herself.

She shivered in her state of undress, wishing the woman to be done with the inspection and get on with the job of dressing her. When she had imagined herself as the Queen of France, this had not been a part of the vision. It was decidedly unlike the fairytale she had conjured.

Eventually the woman seemed to have satisfied her misgivings and called for the fine French linen chemise, which she settled down over the girl’s head with her own two hands. Her part accomplished, she signaled for the other ladies to bring forth the remainder of the garments necessary for the transformation. Then she sat back to make sure they performed the task to her exacting standards. Finally, the Austrian girl was dressed à la française to the satisfaction of the woman in charge and stood waiting for her next cue.

“It is now time to bid goodbye to Austria and be welcomed into France.”

Antoine began the process almost gaily, testing out her new persona with alacrity, buoyed by the beautiful French gown and elaborate new coiffure with its glittering adornments. But as the realization set in that this was probably the last time in her life she would see these staid, upright Austrian nobles, so representative of her native soil, she began to sniffle in sadness, dreading the final separation. By the time she reached the end of the line and her carriage companions stood before her, equally as miserable, the tears were flowing in an unstoppable stream. She clung fast to the princesses, knowing that as soon as they released each other, their connection would be severed in fact as well as principle.

As the last of her Austrian entourage vacated the room, Antoine was immediately set upon by the French attendants, who dried her tears and attempted to repair the damage to her meticulously applied maquillage. They wiped away the black smudges under her eyes and the streaks on her cheeks left by her tearful farewells. They dabbed white face paint over the bare patches followed by powder and rouge and relined her eyes with kohl. When Antoine was once again presentable, one of the friendlier girls drew close and made a show of neatening her hair.

“Courage, Madame Dauphine,” the girl whispered under her breath. “You must now be presented to your French family, but first, la Comtesse de Noailles. If you will suffer a bit of advice, even la Dauphine would be wise to obey. The Comtesse prides herself on her strictness and adherence to the rules and regulations of etiquette. She attended the previous Queen of France and will not suffer the merest hint of insolence.”

“Thank you,” Antoine whispered back with a meaningful look.

The girl gave her a mischievous wink then turned and declared, “Madame la Dauphine is ready.”

*     *     *

Although my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, is a work of alternate history and borderline horror, I have stayed true to Marie Antoinette’s reputation and include ample mention of the Queen’s panache and her concerns with the world of fashion. Kindle, paperback, and Nook editions of INSATIABLE are available at:

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*This post was originally run at Philippa Jane Keyworth ~ Writing, Wit & Wonderings

Insatiable: Introductory price of $2.99

cover 353The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are currently on sale for an introductory price of $2.99, a great deal for a 400-page book! On July 1st the price will go up to $4.99, so get it now at:

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Here is the gorgeous cover designed by Arleigh C. Johnson of Historical-Fiction.com. Just click on it and you will be taken to the product page a Amazon, where you can get a four chapter preview of the book and check out the reviews. Here’s the blurb:

***WARNING***  This book is a work of alternate history and borderline HORROR with depictions of graphic violence. If you are looking for a straight retelling of Marie Antoinette’s story, DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK.

In 1770, fourteen-year-old Austrian archduchess, Maria Antonia, left her homeland to marry the most sought after prince in Europe. Upon stepping into France she became Dauphine Marie Antoinette and assumed a fairytale life would follow.

But being the Queen of France is not all masked balls, beautiful dresses, and extravagant living. There are horrifying and unnatural forces at work behind the scenes, a mysterious plague causing a sinister transformation in the residents of Paris. When Marie Antoinette learns the details, she is stunned to find out that France has kept the secret for over two hundred years, and now she will be burdened with one of her own.

Determined to be the obedient daughter of the iron-willed Holy Roman Empress, she agrees to fulfill her commitment to the French Crown, until she unexpectedly falls for the handsome Swedish count, Axel von Fersen. Torn between her husband and her true love, her duty and her desire, Marie Antoinette longs for the day when she can be free to choose her path and follow her heart.

The Indomitable Spirit of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is often thought of as a victim, and indeed she became a scapegoat for all of France’s ills, but many people don’t realize what a strong woman she actually was. She was daughter to the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, a steely woman and ruler in her own right, who governed her empire with a formidable hand.

The Empress ran her family life with the same no-nonsense attitude, raising her children to be obedient in the extreme and acutely aware of their positions and duties. Maria Antonia was the fifteenth child and youngest girl, and was married into the French royal family at the tender age of fourteen. During these early years of her residence in France, Marie Antoinette was docile and eager to please. She was so overwhelmed at her circumstance—being in a foreign court with strange new rituals and no friends to speak of—that she did all that was asked of her. But eventually she began to chafe at the demands placed upon her and blossomed into her own person.

Four years after her marriage to the Dauphin of France, her husband was made Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became Queen. In matters of government, after too many occasions when her husband ruled in direct opposition to her suggestions, Marie Antoinette decided to forgo her fruitless dabbling in politics in favor of the personal aspects of her life she could better control. She was now the Queen of France, and no one would dictate her comportment any longer.

For the duration of her residence in France, she had been slave to the strict system of etiquette in place at Versailles. She had never quite understood its necessity and always viewed it, and its enforcer, the Comtesse de Noailles—her Mistress of the Household whom she had mischievously nicknamed Madame Etiquette—with a considerable amount of disdain. The woman had been a necessary evil for a young foreign teenager hard-pressed to learn the new ways of her adopted country, but that rationale no longer applied. The Queen replaced the “old bundle” with her friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, leaving her young circle of intimates with no one to reprimand them. This was the first step toward establishing her own personality—and authority—and she continued to do as she pleased although not always for the sake of pleasure, which is a common misconception.

Marie Antoinette broke with tradition for sake of her children, which was the biggest motivation behind decisions later in her life that some people construed as rebellious. When her first child was born, it turned out to be a girl and not the anticipated Dauphin.  The new mother was reported to have said, “Poor little girl. You are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me.” She went on to prove her devotion to the baby, even managing to nurse the child for a few months after her birth, which was unheard of and absolutely would not have been allowed had the child been male. She took the little girl with her to le Petit Trianon away from the unhealthy air of Versailles as often as she could, and when the keenly awaited Dauphin eventually arrived, she did the same with him. She even played a part in her children’s education, which was also not done with royal offspring.

Then, during the turmoil of the pre-revolutionary years, her husband, Louis XVI, began to suffer from the pressures of his position. He broke down on several occasions and was unable to attend important meetings with opposing factions. Although the Queen had previously been shut out of politics, now that the monarchy was threatened—and the security of her children’s positions within in it—she took the King’s place and did her best, despite her limited knowledge in this complicated sphere of royal responsibility.

Regardless of her noble efforts, the royal family’s lives came under serious threat. When urged by Louis XVI himself to take their children and go, Marie Antoinette refused to leave him. She stayed by his side during the troubles, even separating herself in her apartments at Versailles to reduce the risk to other members of her family when the palace was besieged by an angry mob. As evidence of the people’s hatred of their foreign queen, the rabble slew her guards, broke into her quarters, and hacked her bed to pieces, yet the Queen still had the composure to flee with her two ladies down a secret corridor to the safety of the King’s rooms.

The next morning the revolutionaries escorted the royal family to Paris under the watchful eye of the Garde Nationale. They were now prisoners, but the Queen was still not resigned to their fate. She learned code and continued to correspond with Axel von Fersen and made several plans of escape, unwilling to enact one unless the entire family could go as a unit. Finally they attempted it but were caught 40 miles from their destination and forced to return to Paris, where she continued to work toward preserving the monarchy for her remaining son, Dauphin Louis-Charles.

Eventually, even that slim hope was extinguished. The revolutionaries took Louis-Charles away from her in July of 1792. Soon after, she was removed from the Tower—where she yet shared the comfort of her daughter and sister-in-law—to the Conciergerie where she was utterly alone. But still, she would not break.

The trial to decide her fate was announced, and it was clear she would be made a sacrifice to the cause. At this point she might have given up, but she regarded the trial as a way to erase the stain on her reputation from years of scorn heaped upon it by an entire nation. Here was the chance to finally have her say, to defend her actions and leave her children the memory of a loving mother untouched by the hateful bias of the masses. She was given little time to prepare but defended herself admirably at the trial, even evoking a sympathetic response when she appealed to the women in the room after being accused of incest by her prosecuters. When she went to her death, it was with such dignity that witnesses called it haughtiness, disdain, or arrogance, but none dared say she lacked courage.

cover 353In my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, I’ve added one more complication to the mix; a mysterious plague causing a sinister transformation in the residents of Paris. In this work of alternate history, the Queen handles the unforeseen circumstance with the same steely aplomb that ruled her actions in documented historical accounts. The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 through June 30th and are available at:

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*This post was originally run at Book Babe.

Le Petit Trianon and le Hameau de la Reine

Le Petit Trianon is a small classical Greek chateau on the grounds of Versailles most commonly known as Marie Antoinette’s retreat from the demands of court life. Often referred to as her “playhouse”, it was actually built in honor of another lady, slightly less royal but perhaps more influential in her time. The chateau was originally contracted for the Marquise de Pompadour, the most influential mistress of Louis XV.

Sadly, Madame de Pompadour died four years before the construction could be completed. By the time it was finished and ready for occupation, Louis XV had moved on to a new favorite, Madame du Barry, and the little getaway was consigned for her use. She employed it to host informal supper parties and hunting trips for her royal patron, and it was here during one such outing that Louis XV realized the severity of his final illness. He was rushed back to his apartments and died two weeks later.

When the old king’s grandson was crowned Louis XVI of France, he gifted his young wife, Marie Antoinette, with le Petit Trianon as her own personal refuge. As its mistress, she was free to renovate it however she saw fit. She had always felt a certain fondness for Laxenburg, her family’s summer retreat in Austria, which was more rural and carefree than the other royal residences. Intending to recapture a part of her happy childhood, the new Queen tore out all of the old ostentatious décor and substituted a light and airy theme in its place. She restructured the grounds surrounding le Petit Trianon with a more natural feel, plotting the design after the English gardens en vogue at the time, until it resembled the quaint country manor of her dreams. She also had many innovative new devices installed, mechanical screens and tables that could be raised and lowered through a system of cranks and pulleys.

It was here in her refuge of le Petit Trianon that she began to become her own person, surrounding herself with music and beauty, two things essential to her happiness. She threw all-night revels away from the prying eyes of the public. Even her husband could not join in unless she invited him. She cast aside all pretense of formality, shunning the stilted court etiquette in favor of a more down to earth atmosphere where her circle of friends could cut loose and make merry in any way they wished. For the most part, they simply enjoyed each other’s company, playing cards, listening to music, and engaging in silliness, although outsiders imagined far worse.

There is a formal opera house located within Versailles, but to indulge her passion for performing, Marie Antoinette had her own personal theater constructed at le Petit Trianon. She invited professional theatrical companies to perform there, and she and her cohorts also put on many polished pieces for royal friends and relatives and even the King in attendance. Some of the original backdrops for the sets—works of art in themselves—were preserved and restored and are still on display today.

But it seemed that even this private retreat would not be enough for Marie Antoinette. Although she had redecorated it and made it comfortable, the fact remained that it had been constructed for someone else and passed to her only after belonging to another. She wanted something entirely her own—designed, built, and furnished to her exacting standards. She had always entertained the idea of being a well-loved chatelaine, so she commissioned an entire rustic village complete with villagers to tend it.

The Queen’s Hamlet, or le Hameau de la Reine as it was known, was Marie Antoinette’s attempt to return to simpler way of life. She began with a seed of an idea in 1783, and the massive project took four years to complete. The fairytale village is set in a rolling green meadowland and consists of eleven main structures and their annexes centered around a large natural looking lake that was used for boating and fishing excursions. There are five buildings that were reserved for the Queen’s own personal use and cottages for the ‘peasant’ villeins and caretakers, each house with its own private vegetable garden. There is a dairy, dovecote, guard’s residence, a tower, and even a mill that was functional in its time. There were ducks and swans on the ponds, sheep, goats, and cattle in the pastures, and chickens in the brooding shed, everything a real farm would have to supply wool, fresh milk, and eggs. Intent upon getting her royal offspring away from the suffocating atmosphere of Versailles and teaching them about the importance of the outdoors, the Queen spent much of her time at le Hameau with her children and her loyal friends.

Ironically, the illusion of this simple country tableau was extremely expensive to achieve. It was unfortunate that the Queen embarked on such a whimsical endeavor at a time when the common people of France were suffering under a heavy burden of taxes and food shortages. Her personal expenditures added to weight to the title of ‘Madame Deficit’ attributed to Marie Antoinette during the latter part of her tenure as Queen of France and eventually contributed to the downfall of the monarchy and the rise of the French Revolution.

cover 353In my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, many pivotal events are played out at both le Petit Trianon and le Hameau de la Reine. The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 through June 30th and are available at:

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*This post was originally run at Unusual Historicals.

 

Axel von Fersen: The Queen’s Favorite

Anyone who knows about Marie Antoinette will recognize the name of her favorite, Axel von Fersen. Although even experts in the field cannot definitively say whether they were physical lovers or not, there is no doubting that there was a strong bond between them. They shared a lifelong association that at the very least can be classified as a deep and lasting friendship. Their relationship began in their late teens and endured until Marie Antoinette’s death in 1793.

They met at an opera ball, a masked event on January 30, 1774, when Marie Antoinette was only eighteen years old and not yet Queen of France. Her husband Louis Auguste, then Dauphin, was in attendance along with his brothers and their wives, and the small circle of young royals seemed to approve of von Fersen. The Swedish count was invited to attend a few bals à la Dauphine, little informal dances given by Marie Antoinette in her personal apartments at Versailles. Although this may seem like the beginnings of a love affair, there was actually little opportunity for misbehavior, as the Dauphine would have been closely watched in her own rooms. A few months later, von Fersen left France to continue his Grand Tour of Europe, which included a visit to England where he would attempt to secure the hand of an heiress, Catherine Lyell.

Axel did not return to France for over four years. Marie Antoinette, by then Queen, immediately recognized von Fersen when he stopped in to pay court, even if the rest of the royals did not. A short while later, she invited him to one of her famous card parties, and despite the fact that she was pregnant at the time, von Fersen quickly became part of Marie Antoinette’s intimate circle, in fact, one of her favorites. He spent much time at Le Petit Trianon playing cards, lounging about, and engaging in meaningful discussions with the rest of the privileged few, whatever the queen’s whim demanded in the moment. This pleasant idyll lasted for nearly two years until he left in May of 1780 to aid the Americans in their fight for freedom.

Von Fersen had a long tradition of military service in his background and spent his formative years in military academies. He was a staunch idealist, and believed in the concept of freedom for all, although he came from a noble family and his father was one of the richest men in all of Sweden. His father served Louis XV of France in the Seven Years’ War, so there was a longtime connection to the French court, and it was as aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau that Axel the younger was assigned. A year after the arrival of l’Expédition Particulière, the unit marched south to join the Continental army under George Washington for their planned attack on New York.

Von Fersen’s duties encompassed many tasks for which he was well equipped. He filled the role of interpreter, secretary, and courier, and played a key role in organizing the objective at Yorktown that eventually led to the defeat of Cornwallis and ensured the American victory. Von Fersen was awarded the Order of Cincinnatus by Washington himself, although his own sovereign, King Gustavus III of Sweden, censured the wearing of an honor earned in a people’s revolt against their overlord.

From America, von Fersen returned to France in June of 1783, where he stayed until September before heading home to Sweden to serve King Gustavus. He spent nine months accompanying his king on a tour of Europe, eventually making their way back to Versailles to negotiate a treaty with Louis XVI. Axel then departed for his homeland once again on a mission of the utmost importance, to procure a puppy for Marie Antoinette. He brought this special breed, a Leonberger, back to her and maintained close contact through the next few years, being present for most of the major events leading up to the French Revolution.

He was in residence in the town of Versailles in October of 1789 when the Palace was stormed by a volatile mob. The royal family was taken and held at the Tuileries under strict guard, and von Fersen helped lay the groundwork to liberate them. With his military background and firsthand experience of covert operations, he was ultimately qualified to plot the escape and arranged the whole thing down to the smallest detail. At this point, he could have just played it safe and sent someone less recognizable to enact the plan, which might have been the wiser decision on his part. But due to his deep affection for Marie Antoinette, and in lesser part her husband, he refused to rely upon anyone else and drove the getaway carriage himself.

After the first leg of the journey, von Fersen unwillingly ceded control of the coach at Louis XVI’s insistence. The king did not want his people to believe he was attempting to leave France, especially aided by a foreign personage. After dismissing von Fersen, Louis was recognized when the party sought to change horses in Varennes, a mere forty miles from their destination, and the royal family was taken back to Paris.

In February 1792, von Fersen made his final visit to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries palace. In heavy disguise he sneaked in an unguarded side door and again urged them to escape, which Louis absolutely refused to do. He spent the night in their quarters, attempting to convince them, but left dejected the next morning unable to persuade Louis to change his mind. But the King’s refusal would not curtail his efforts. Von Fersen continued working to get Marie Antoinette out of France—one daring plan consisting of riding into the Conciergerie and taking her out on horseback—right up until she was executed in October of 1793. It is apparent that there was some extraordinary force at work behind the scenes. Spending so many years of his life to get Marie Antoinette to safety is the true testament to the devotion her bore her.

Because the verity of their relationship will never be proven, it will always hold the allure of the unsolved mystery. In my new release—Insatiable: A Macabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette—I exploit the premise that Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were indeed lovers. I even take their relationship one step further by adopting the assertions of the gossip of the time attributing the paternity of her second son, Louis-Charles—the eventual Dauphin of France—to von Fersen. As INSATIABLE is a work of alternate history, the love affair between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen is the least of the liberties I take with the story. But in my defense, I am not the first to do so nor will I be the last.

*    *    *

EXCERPT from INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE

After sipping a glass of punch, Marie Antoinette still felt winded by her exertions. She decided to observe for a bit before returning to the chaos. She spotted an open space above the ballroom floor with an unobstructed view of the dancers. She made her way to the landing and leaned up against the banister, snapping open her fan to circulate the air over her heated face and neck. The cool breeze on her skin felt heavenly. She relaxed but went suddenly rigid when a body bumped heavily into her from behind.

She heard a deep voice mumble, “Excuse me, Madame,” but she could not help but feel he had jostled her on purpose. Some impertinent courtier come to make sport with the Dauphine, perhaps? Well, she knew how to put paid to that. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and adopted the most imperious attitude she could muster. She turned with a haughty swish of her skirts, glowered at her harasser, and ceased to breathe.

She had raised her chin in order to look down upon the intruder, but in doing so, her initial gaze only reached to the center of his broad chest. When she lifted her eyes to his face, she encountered the most striking looking man she had ever beheld in her life. He was dressed in the same fashion as the others in the room—tricorn hat, powdered wig, frock coat, and breeches—but nothing he could ever do would make him look like the rest.

The shape of his face was a study in masculinity with its angular planes, straight nose, clearly defined jawline, and square chin. He had heavy eyebrows set above a pair of piercing dark eyes the color of the sky at midnight. He was athletically slender with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and well turned legs, and he bore himself regally. And tall, so tall. His whole person gave off an imposing air that did little to diminish her attraction to him but, in fact, increased it.

Marie Antoinette’s heart pounded in her chest, and her breath came in little hitching gasps, which she desperately hoped he would not notice. Any thought she had previously entertained about quashing his advances flew immediately out of her head, and she stood there, unspeaking, knowing that the pause was becoming more conspicuous by the second but helpless to break the spell. She racked her brain, trying regain her composure while he stood there looking down at her with his brooding eyes and an amused but decidedly insolent upturn to the corners of his prim mouth.

“I’m sorry, but you have caught me off-guard, Monsieur,” she finally got out, praying that her voice sounded normal.

“Yes,” he said, the maddeningly arrogant expression never leaving his face. “It seems so,” he added, not bothering to introduce himself—which would have been the polite thing to do—and letting her squirm.

She should have been put out by his flippant response, but being in his presence had the distinct effect of discombobulating her. She took a deep breath—hoping that he would not notice her flustered state—and took a moment to reflect.

They were at a bal masqué. The entire point of going incognito was to discard the strictures of etiquette for a time and just have fun. And although most of the partygoers knew the identities behind the masks, it was expected to act somewhat out of the norm and not be held accountable afterward. Artois and Provence were masters at it!

The Dauphine could not act too outrageously with her husband in attendance—besides, she was not inclined toward wild behavior—but her disguise did afford her a small measure of anonymity. With this comforting thought in mind, she allowed her natural charm and flirtatiousness to bubble to the surface and engaged in a bit of playful banter with the stranger.

“Well, I suppose I should beware then,” she replied saucily. “Your reluctance to reveal your identity may be an attempt to hide malicious intent or a disreputable past. Next thing I know you will have abducted me and held me for ransom … or worse. Should I be alarmed?”

He chuckled to himself at the scandalous picture she painted of him as a potential criminal. The upstanding Axel von Fersen, adherent to etiquette and slave to propriety, a kidnapper? It was laughable. She certainly had a vivid imagination and a quick wit, to boot. If he had caught her off-guard at first, she was fully recovered now.

“The thought had not crossed my mind until you mentioned it, although now that you have, it’s not a bad idea.”

“I suppose it’s only fair to warn you. I am a very high-ranking Lady, and your actions would launch a massive manhunt to the farthest corners of France.”

“Well then, it’s a good thing that I have the fastest horse in all of Europe.”

“Yes, but he would be burdened with the two of us,” she pointed out, placing a finger on her dimpled chin and looking up out of the corner of her eyes at him. Her long lashes veiled the big round orbs alluringly in a captivating expression that stunned him into momentary silence.

The better part of her face was covered by her mask, but he could still clearly distinguish her charms. Her skin was white and luminous, her face a lovely pale oval flushed pink by her excitement. She had a slightly aquiline nose, although small and feminine, and an adorable pouty mouth. The one thing the mask did to enhance her natural beauty was to set off her eyes to their best advantage, and he had never seen a more bewitching pair in his life.

Her eyes, her beautiful silvery blue eyes, held him mesmerized. Although he could listen to her chatter merrily on about nothing and never tire of the display—her porcelain skin and plump red lips exceedingly attractive and her delicate white hands in constant motion—he found himself drowning in her eyes. He tore his gaze away and tried to regain the thread of his concentration.

“You are quite petite,” he said, giving an appreciative once over of her shapely figure. “My horse would hardly notice the extra load. Even if he did, I’m sure he would gladly bear it.”

It was her turn to be struck speechless. She didn’t know whether to be incensed that he had inspected her in such a blatantly assessing manner or flattered that he had noticed. She struggled with her natural prudishness for a moment, wondering if it would do more harm than good to reveal her identity. She was rendered acutely conscious by his comment, but still, she did not want her time with him to end, not just yet. What to do?

*    *    *

cover 353The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 through June 30th and are available at:

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*This post was originally run on the website of Anna Belfrage.

Marie Antoinette Bucking the System (of Etiquette)

Marie Antoinette as Dauphine of France

When Marie Antoinette first arrived in France and became Dauphine, every aspect of her routine was dictated by the ever present etiquette. In her early years at Versailles, she was docile and eager to please, knowing that any misstep would be reported to her mother, the Holy Roman Empress, the person she wished to satisfy above all others. Living her life under such constant scrutiny was a heavy burden to Marie Antoinette, but she was expected to gracefully bear it all, which she did for four long years.

The system of court etiquette originally establish by Louis XIV, the Sun King, was inescapable, almost an entity in itself.  Although the young Dauphine accepted the necessity of her routine and tolerated it to a certain extent, she was known to register her disdain from time to time. There is a well known incident when she actually voiced her exasperation aloud. This slip took place in her early years when during the course of her lever—the tedious ritual of her morning toilette—she was left waiting naked while a series of higher ranking Ladies entered her bedchamber and were forced to cede the honor of handing the Dauphine her underwear to the next in line. Marie Antoinette was reported to have said, “This is maddening! This is ridiculous!” which was unthinkable. No one in the French hierarchy had ever dared to question the proceedings, which had been in place since the moving of the court from Paris to Versailles in 1682. But when Marie Antoinette became Queen, there was no one to stop her.

Comtesse de Noailles

Louis XV died of smallpox in 1774, and Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette became the King and Queen of France while still teenagers. Eager to take charge of her life and establish her authority, one of the first things the new Queen did was get rid of one of the stuffy old ladies at Versailles—whom she secretly referred to as bundles—the Comtesse de Noailles, nicknamed Madame Etiquette. Although this may have seemed a tactless act, the Queen went about the expulsion in a very subtle way.  She used her knowledge of etiquette against its enforcer by awarding the superior position of Superintendant of the Household to her friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. This resulted in putting the princess one step above the comtesse’s own position as Mistress of the Household. This was a serious breach in the etiquette the new Queen was endeavoring to buck. The comtesse was so indignant over being demoted in favor of a person without the pedigree to back it up that she resigned, leaving the new Queen and her friends with no one to reprimand them.

Here, another of her partners-in-crime enters the picture and shakes things up a bit more. During a court function around the same time, the Queen was presented with a young attractive couple, the Duc and Duchesse de Polignac. After spending a good deal of the night in rapt conversation with her vibrant new friend, Marie Antoinette decided she could not live happily without her. To ensure that the duchesse—Gabrielle as her new acquaintance urged the Queen to refer to her—remained by her side, Marie Antoinette found the Duc a position at court and installed them at Versailles, all with Louis XVI’s approval. Of course, no one would dare gainsay the King, who could not bring himself to object to so small a thing when it brought such happiness to his wife. But again, the protocol was ignored and certain people were miffed. From there, things only proceeded to get worse.

Duchesse de Polignac

When Marie Antoinette’s husband was crowned Louis XVI in 1775, he gifted her le Petit Trianon, a private chateau on the grounds of Versailles, and Marie Antoinette wasted no time renovating the place and turning it into her personal sanctuary. It was here that she held her late-night card parties and extravagant dinners. For her twenty-first birthday she threw a three-day gambling party that even her stuffy husband attended. Although in her mind there was nothing wrong with these innocent pleasures, it was this blatant enjoying herself away from the eyes of the public that began speculation about the goings-on there.

The common people were indignant over not being able to openly observe the actions of their royal family, to whom they had always had access in the past. If the new Queen did not want to be observed, she must be doing something illicit! It was at this point that the libelles took advantage of the brewing drama and began to slander her character. Those who knew her found the allegations laughable and so did the Queen. Not knowing how to combat the untruths nor how to remedy the situation, she simply ignored all of it and continued to live her life in the same careless and extravagant manner, which was unwise, especially when the people of France were in dire straits. It was exactly this disparaging of her public image that made it possible for l’Affaire du Collier to be attributed to the acquisitive nature of Madame Deficit, which was the final straw in turning her into the scapegoat for all of France’s troubles. It set the stage for the French Revolution and the eventual execution of both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who represented everything the people were rebelling against and would endeavor to never allow to rise again.

cover 353In my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, etiquette plays another key role in my alternate take on the events described above. The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 through June 30th and are available at:

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*This post was originally run at  A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life

INSATIABLE: Marie Antoinette as Alternate History

cover 353INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE is my latest release. It’s doing well and already has three 5-star reviews that you can read HERE. It may look like a typical historical novel, but it’s not quite. It is a work of alternate history and borderline horror. For the most part it is historically accurate in respect to the documentation and timeline, so much so that people who know Marie Antoinette’s story will find enough to feel a comfortable sense of familiarity … for a while!

It begins predictably enough with the birth of Archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in the Hofburg Palace and continues on in the same historical manner, covering such events as the handover ceremony at the Rhine, where she is stripped of all vestiges of her homeland including her little pug, Mops. She enters the building on one side an Austrian archduchess and exits on French soil as Dauphine Marie Antoinette. From there I move on to her glittering wedding at Versailles where she goes through the official marriage ceremony with Dauphin Louis-Auguste. The reader is taken through the strange and uber-public customs established by the Sun King and enforced by the Comtesse de Noailles, or as Marie Antoinette dubbed her Madame Etiquette. The story references her mother’s harassing letters and the constant presence of Maria Theresa’s spy, Count Mercy. Louis XV, Madame du Barry, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Duchesse de Polignac, Axel Fersen—all make their respective appearances. It’s all there, from the masked balls in Paris and her reveling at le Petit Trianon to the expensive construction of her perfect little fairytale village le Hameau de la Reine.

The rest of the book is not meant to feel comfortable or predictable. I apologize. It’s just my way. Marie Antoinette is known for her extravagance with all of her gorgeous custom-made gowns, her diamond jewelry, and towering wigs, so why would I turn it into a horror story? Well, because this story screams horror. Look what came after all the fun. Her downfall was swift and brutal beginning with L’Affaire du Collier, continuing with the storming of the Bastille and Versailles, and culminating in the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. My goodness! It was bad enough before I started with it. Even just the guillotine gives me the shivers, let alone the massacres with heads on pikes and market women declaring that they wanted to carve Marie Antoinette up and make cockades out of her entrails. I’ve just given a more macabre explanation for the violence is all.

It says right in the blurb that there is “a mysterious plague causing a sinister transformation in the residents of Paris,” and it does more that just that. I attribute the origins of some of the historical events to the mysterious (and fictional) plague and its victims. There are many documented instances during the life of Marie Antoinette with undocumented causes, even unexplainable behaviors, like Louis-Auguste’s fascination with locks (a decidedly un-kingly hobby) and the overwhelming presence of dogs in the palace. As an historical novelist, it’s my job to exploit exactly these sorts of loopholes and gray areas in history to write an interesting and believable story, but I think I’ve taken that premise to new heights with this one!

I also put a spin on the propaganda against Marie Antoinette, taking the line that some of the assertions were true despite the fact that there was never any solid proof to back them up. (There must be something going on for people to imagine it! Right?) I stick with the assumption of Louis XVI’s impotence, although I attribute it to a fictional medical condition. There were also stories asserted by the libelles—basically the National Enquirer of the time—that Marie Antoinette and her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois, had an affair. This also plays a major part in the book. I adopt the assertion that she and Axel von Fersen were lovers, which although widely accepted has never been conclusively proven. I also make her enmity with Madame du Barry into something more than a simple clash of personalities.

But, I don’t want potential readers to think this book is wholly one thing or the other. I don’t want them to be put off by the horror aspect, because that is only a part of it. Some of the scenes get graphic, but hey! It was a revolution! There is so much more to the story than that. There is a sweet and touching family depiction and a passionate love story at the core. There are some scenes in it that are so touching that I cry each time I read them. My Louis XVI is valiant and decent, if indecisive, and Louis-Joseph, the first Dauphin, is as sweet and pitiable as his reputation holds. In fact, I think I’ve done a pretty good job capturing the personalities of all the main characters, at least I hope I have. I also try to give a well-rounded look at the political picture if not a detailed account. But that is where the story diverges from the path of straight historical fiction into alternate history. The result is the same, it’s just a different and slightly more twisted journey!

Not only have I put my spin on Marie Antoinette’s story, I plan to do the same with other French notables, as well! This book is part of a series. I originally thought to do only a trilogy but have since revised my opinion. I think I have enough interesting ideas to do at least four books without the premise becoming hackneyed. The next will be about Napoleon and the subsequent one about Catherine de’ Medici. I’m still debating the others. Please stay tuned.

INSATIABLE is now available at:

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*This post was originally run at Judith Arnopp-Historical Novelist.