An Interview With Kathryn Lasky About Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: Your Dear America characters — Zipporah Feldman and Remember Patience Whipple — are strong young women who are almost heroic in their courage. Marie Antoinette is quite different. What did you find in her character that made her interesting enough for you to want to write about her?
Kathryn Lasky: I was actually very hesitant to write about Marie Antoinette. She seemed at first glance — well, I cannot think of any other term — an airhead of the first degree. Princess Elizabeth certainly outstripped her mentally. She did not have the drive of Zipporah Feldman or Mem Whipple. She indeed seemed merely a tool for other people's dreams. And her mother! Gads aren't we all glad we don't have mothers like the Empress Maria Theresa. Ironically it turned out that the very things that I considered Marie Antoinette's deficits became most fascinating to me. How did one deal with a mother like that? How did it feel to be used as a diplomatic instrument, to be regarded merely as good bartering material on the royal marriage market? With a lot of research I did find out that Marie Antoinette was known not only for her beauty, but her candor. There were letters from the French diplomats who visited the Hofburg Court during the engagement period and certain French words kept cropping up ingÃ©nue, for candid. Spontaneitite, or spontaneous, mignon, delicate. My own editor used a word about Marie Antoinette which really lit something in my brain. "Sprite." I think she was a sprite, a complete innocent and full of life. So I ultimately found her irresistible and her candor, as a very young bride, did seem to cut through the silliness and pretension of the Court of Versailles.
RFA & LMP: You do a wonderful job sketching the picture of the Court and the ridiculous protocols and rules of etiquette that all seemed bound by. Did you uncover one or two of these rules that struck you as the most ridiculous?
KL: The most ridiculous rules of etiquette of all were those connected with the Grand Levee of the King, or the rising of the King when he got out of bed in the morning. As I recall now, for I do not have all the references handy, first a priest had to come and say a prayer before the King got out of bed. Then a few other people trooped through to inquire as to how he had slept, to present him, I think, with a wash bowl and then finally he was escorted to la chaise percÃ©e — the toilet. Now my question always was what if the poor king had to go to the bathroom really bad, did he have to wait for the priest to say those prayers and all these other folks to file by and offer their respects or whatever?
RFA & LMP: After having done so much research on Marie Antoinette and her life, how much of her tragic life can be said to be her mother's fault?
KL: I think a lot can be blamed on Marie Antoinette's mother. The Empress might have been canny about statecraft and making alliances and war, for that matter, but she was utterly clueless about children even though she had so many. That she could even think one could marry off a daughter at the age of fourteen and have her so poorly educated is appalling. Henry VIII certainly didn't think that way about his children. They were all superbly educated.
RFA & LMP: How does writing historical fiction about a famous person differ from writing about an era or place — peopled with fictional characters?
KL: Before I had begun writing the Dear America diaries I might have thought that there was a lot of difference, but I came to writing the Royal Diaries after two Dear America ones and I realized what made those diaries so engaging for young readers was in away the ordinariness, in the best sense of the word, and the lack of the conventional heroic dimension that gave the characters in the diary an immediacy and an intimacy that readers could relate to. I decided that this was a key to writing a good book, a believable diary. These characters might be princesses but they still, on many levels, had the same responses of ordinary twelve-year-old or fourteen-year-old girls. They felt loneliness, they needed a friend they could trust and they all, one way or the other, wanted to some degree to be their own person. I would like to add that the research, as far as I am concerned, is just as thorough for a fictional character as for a famous person who really did live. I treat all my characters as if they were real and I am scrupulous about the details of their lives.
RFA & LMP: Since many of the books in the Diary series from Dear America to My Name Is America to the Royal Diaries are being made into HBO movies, if you could choose any actress to play Marie Antoinette, who would it be and why?
KL: I love thinking of movie stars who could play the characters in the books I write. I think Charlize Theron would make a lovely Marie Antoinette. She has that candor. It's something about her eyes and there is a vulnerability to her that I find very engaging. I think she has great "sprite potential."
RFA & LMP: After all your research and reading about Marie Antoinette, would you want to live with her at Versailles?
KL: Never in a million years would I want to live at Versailles with Marie Antoinette or anybody else. I hate to tell you this but I did not even like visiting Versailles. I found it just too ornate. It was like a complete diet of cotton candy, marzipan, and whipped cream. It gave me the mental equivalent of one of those toothaches you get when you bite into something too sweet.
RFA & LMP: In the Author's Note, you say that your French teacher explained that "people could be very rich in material things...but still be very poor in other ways." What do you think are the ways in which Marie Antoinette was "impoverished" and did these lead to her inability to understand the problems of the common people of France?
KL: I think first and foremost Marie Antoinette was intellectually impoverished. She really had never been introduced to the notion of abstract thinking--of thinking at all in any profound way. Her mother was so overbearing and interfering that, except for the most private thoughts about herself, Marie Antoinette did not realize that she was entitled to an intellectual opinion, a belief that was entirely her own after having studied a subject area. Thinking, in particular abstract thinking, which most of us are introduced to through the study of mathematics and literature helps us learn that we can become problem solvers. I do not think that Marie Antoinette ever had a notion of herself as a problem solver. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that she would have gained the ability to understand the problems of the common people of France. On the most basic level she was incapable of even imagining their lives, their poverty. This I believe was primarily an intellectual problem not one of feelings or emotions.
RFA & LMP: What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading the diary?
KL: I suppose it is rather a simple question, but I would hope that readers might think of how Marie Antoinette's life could have been different? Maybe readers would try to imagine what kind of life Marie Antoinette would have really liked and one in which she would have flourished. Since I have finished writing the book I am obsessed with these questions and oddly enough I think an awfully lot about the late Princess Diana and ask myself the same questions about her.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.