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BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother's political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels, Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.

My Thoughts:

As the title suggests, Becoming Marie Antoinette is biographical fiction inspired by the life of the ill-fated queen of France, who lost her head to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

It is one of my favourite periods of history (I’m actually writing a novel set during the Terror now), and I read many novels inspired by her life by writers like Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt when I was a teenager. I have also read many biographies by historians such as Antonia Fraser and Evelyne Lever, as well as life histories of her hairdresser, her perfumerer and the like.

Juliet Grey’s novel is the first in a trilogy, and begins when Maria Antonia is still a child in the court of her mother, the formidable Empress of Austria. Impulsive, warm-hearted and mischievous, Maria Antonia knows her destiny is to be married for political gain and hopes that her chosen husband will not be too old or too unkind. Her mother begins negotiations with the French king, Louis the Fifteenth, for a betrothal with his grandson, the young Dauphin. Marie Antonia begins her journey of transformation, having her teeth straightened, her posture corrected and her meagre education rectified. She is only fourteen when she is married by proxy and sent off alone to Versailles, and Juliet Grey brilliantly brings her sweetness, naïveté and natural charm to life.

Versailles is, of course, a gilded trap for the young dauphine, and she makes many mistakes by trusting too easily and not submitting to the strict etiquette of the court. Even worse, poor Marie Antoinette fails to entrance her awkward, immature 14-year old husband and the marriage remains unconsummated.

Light, sparkling and yet psychologically acute, Becoming Marie Antoinette is the best novel I have yet read about the young Austrian arch-duchess’s journey towards becoming the most infamous French queen in history.

You might also be interested in my review of The Wardrobe Mistress: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Meghan Masterson.

I was lucky enough to interview Juliet Grey, you can read it here.

Remember to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

INTERVIEW: Juliet Grey

Friday, May 18, 2018


Today I welcome Juliet Grey, author of Becoming Marie Antoinette, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I’ve always been a daydreamer. I daydream even when I’m walking down the street. And when I’m in a place I don’t want to be, even in a city I don’t want to be living in, it gets me through the day. Being an actress as well as a writer, I live inside my head a lot.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

No, although I have writers on both sides of my family and my paternal grandfather always encouraged my writing when I was a little girl. He was a humorist and a poet and taught me various poetic forms (such as the limerick, sonnet, and ballade – I was a huge fan of Cyrano de Bergerac): I began life as a professional actress, which is what I have also been for years as I pursued writing as an additional career. I find that each discipline feeds the other. And I also narrate audiobooks, so that marries both careers splendidly.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in New York City and that will always be my home no matter where I live. The soot of the subway is embedded in my veins. Central Park is my spiritual plot. I live in Denver now, because that’s where my husband got a terrific job; but I am not terribly outdoorsy—not a hiker, biker, or skier, and the thin air just isn’t for me. I don’t know whether it’s a chicken and egg thing, as I write historical books (fiction and nonfiction) I’m drawn to old places or whether it’s the other way around; but I love exploring the oldest part of a city and walking in the footsteps of those who have been there before me. I never met a museum I didn’t like. I love to travel to old cities like Bath and Venice and hunt around for the untouched bits where I imagine people in period costumes will emerge from ancient buildings. I love water, too. I am inspired by looking at the sea, or by rivers. The view calms my soul.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I was writing a chapter on Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, my second nonfiction book on the loves and lives of European royalty, and I was so struck by how young they both were (she only 14; he, 15) when they were forced into a loveless marriage as so many royal marriages were, by what was ostensibly an international peace treaty between France and the Austrian empire—entities that had been enemies for more than 950 years. And these 2 teens were expected to make a go of it and cement a national friendship? From the start, it was clear that these two children were caught in a web of events not of their own making and that were so much larger than them; and moreover, that their lives, especially Marie Antoinette’s –the foreigner in France, the “other” from the start—were so propagandized and distorted—and that was the story of them that has been handed down through the past several centuries as fact that I felt compelled to tell their story. Their true story. And the only way I felt I could do that was by writing historical fiction so I could get inside the characters’ heads and hearts and minds and souls, while still sticking to the historical record.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I tend to be a bit more of a pantser because I become impatient to start writing already! That said, I take extensive handwritten notes; I research my books for several months before I begin writing, and when I’m writing a novel based on someone’s life I know what the arc of the story will be and where I want it to end, or where it has to end, but I have to plan where the breaks will be (chapter breaks, and for the Marie Antoinette trilogy, what will be in each of the 3 novels themselves). With my historical novels I am extremely keen to get the details right. I try to locate portraits of the characters so I know what they really looked like (it drives me crazy in TV or movie versions where the creators didn’t even bother to cast actors who resemble their real-life counterparts: it takes me right out of the story!). And I have a strict rule for my own writing: if it did happen or could have happened, it’s fair game for inclusion in the novel. If it never could have happened, I would never play fast and loose with the historical record. I will add an author’s note at the back of the book explaining where I may have truncated a timeline, for example. But I will not move a major battle for the sake of expedience and therefore alter history; or have a character survive when we know he or she was executed, just to provide them with a happy ending!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I’m sure I do; I just can’t think of any examples right now. I always hope that a convenient dream will help me out of a stick plot situation that I can’t seem to fix in my waking hours!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Marie Antoinette actually had to undergo an extensive physical “makeover” in order to be considered physically attractive enough to be a suitable bride for the Dauphin of France, the grandson of the reigning monarch, Louis XV. The match was arranged when she was only 10 years old and after the French received a portrait of her, the king dispatched a hairdresser to Vienna; a dentist, Pierre Laveran, was sent to straighten her teeth (18th c. orthodontia!) a dancing master was hired to teach Marie Antoinette all the court dances she would need to know in France, a tutor was hired to cram academics through her brain; and Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother, made the miscalculation to hire a pair of actors (!!) to train her youngest daughter in elocution. Actors—as we all know—were the second lowest life forms for centuries (only a step above beggars and prostitutes). With my mania for adhering to the historical record, I researched and found, then used in the novel, the names of each of the men who were actually involved in Marie Antoinette’s makeover. When it came to the actors, these two Frenchmen were performing with a troupe in Vienna. I had their actual names, but knew little more, so I began to ascribe fictional personalities to them. Then I delved deeper and discovered that one of the actors had been a vicomte in France but had fallen madly in love with an actress and gave up his cushy life and title to marry her and become an itinerant player! The real backstory was heaps better than what I’d invented for him!

Where do you write, and when?

I always write in my home office, which is another bedroom in our apartment. So far, except for brief periods when I’ve been moving and been between apartments (in corporate housing where I didn’t have a separate room to write in), I’ve had, as Virginia Woolf declared of paramount importance, “a room of one’s own.” It’s my sacred space with many of my bookshelves (the rest of the bookshelves are in our living room; I own about 2000 volumes). I need light and air. And wherever we move, I tend to let the room itself tell me how it wants to be decorated. It’s been different in each city. I write like a shark moves. It has to keep swimming or die. I must keep writing or die. Any and all times of day, 7 days a week, except for the middle of the night. I have no specific times of day, or days of the week when I write.

What is your favourite part of writing?

When the ideas are flowing and I am not “thinking about writing.” I adore researching. I love writing dialogue for characters and getting inside their minds. I am not one of those writers who loves editing.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Go to a museum. Change my view/the scenery. Bake. Do needlework (I learned when I played Jane Austen in a two-character play that she did the same thing until an idea came to her again). Act. Something else that is creative or viewing the creativity of others often unblocks my creative issues.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
See the question above! And travel! I love to travel.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

If I am writing something historical I like to collect totems that belonged to, or remind me of the characters or the era in which I am writing; scented candles, period-appropriate music. When I wrote a novel about Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, I had their autographs sitting by my computer, as well as a bust of Nelson that had been made from metal melted down from his flagship, the Foudroyant.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

I am only going to name deceased writers because they are the ones who inspired me as a child and as a young woman, and whose work I loved performing—and also because it’s also a loaded question to ask an author who hates to discuss her colleagues’ work. I never name any living colleagues on a “best of” list because there are invariably those who wonder why their names are not on it.

William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Antoine de St. Exupéry, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Earnest Hemingway, Molière, A.A. Milne.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that takes me on a journey. Writing that has a strong, unique author’s “voice” that sounds like no other “voice”. Complex, nuanced characters. Atmosphere that is a character in itself. Writing that makes me think, feel, question, and that I remember long after I close the book.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write. And if you are serious about getting published, get a literary agent. And write.

What are you working on now?

Promoting my current nonfiction title, AMERICAN PRINCESS: The Love Story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It’s been a whirlwind. I had only 1 month to write and deliver the manuscript; then we went into edits and copyedits, and promotion. After the royal wedding, I will need a nap!

You can read my review of Becoming Marie Antoinette here.

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