Inspirational books for writing “The Last Child At Versailles”

The third book in my French Legacy Trilogy (The Last Child at Versailles) is set during the lead-up to the 1789 French Revolution and the dramatic years that followed.

There is a vast body of reference works on the revolution from both a broad historical view and from the perspective of key players. Fortunately, my interest was much narrower. I became fascinated with an insignificant young girl, whose real-life story is little known, but absolutely extraordinary. She was born into a family who served at Versailles, but circumstances gave her a grandstand seat on a world that was spiralling out of control.

Here, I’m sharing some of the books I used for my research, all highly recommended to give an intimate and captivating view of life at the court of Versailles and the brutal events of the French Revolution.

My primary source was the wonderful biography by Susan Nagel of Marie-Thérèse, the eldest child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While her mother is one of the most famous (or infamous) women in history, Marie-Thérèse deserves to be much better known. Still a young girl when the revolution overturned her pampered life as a Child of France, she faced the invasion of her home at Versailles, a long and harrowing imprisonment, the deaths of her entire family, exile from her homeland, sensational rumours and blackmail, before becoming a leader and queen-in-waiting, with a final exile when she was on the cusp of becoming the queen of France (technically she was queen for twenty minutes).
Susan Nagel’s biography is highly readable and utterly fascinating. Find out more about her other books here
Antonia Fraser’s detailed biography of Marie Antoinette is another fascinating read. Daughter of the Empress of Austria, she was married to the heir to the French throne at the tender age of fourteen and became Queen of France four years later. She is infamous in popular culture for her lavish spending and disregard for the dire condition of the ordinary folk, but her real story is much more nuanced. Yes, she loved balls, fabulous clothes and expensive jewellery (she was the queen, after all), but she was also charitable and a devoted mother. Contrary to myth, she didn’t say “Let them eat cake” when told the people had no bread. And if you think modern social media can viciously slander celebrities, well, it wasn’t so much different back then, albeit via paper and word-of-mouth rather than world-wide digital exposure.
Another extraordinary woman of the era was Lucie de la Tour du Pin, who had an astounding aptitude for being present at major historical events, all recorded in her diaries. Caroline Moorehead brings us her remarkable story in Dancing to the Precipice, a reference to the grand balls which continued to amuse the court, even as Paris rioted. Honestly, if it was a fictional tale, you wouldn’t believe half of it!
Madame Tussaud, of waxworks fame, was another woman uncomfortably close to the revolution, observing it from both sides with her artist’s eye. Michelle Moran’s fictionalised story of her life is full of delicious details about clothes, people and lifestyles, as well as the terrifying events of the revolution. In this pre-camera era, the famed waxworks provided people from all walks of life with an intimate peek at famous folk. She often had to work at a feverish pace to capture the likenesses of the key players of the time, adding new tableaux as the royal and revolutionary figures cycled in and out of favour.
And finally, a gorgeous book of true tales and images from Versailles, with sumptuous pics of the palace, its furniture and treasures, the people and clothes, gardens and glories, produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An absolute dream for a writer looking for authentic details!

Full references:

Nagel, Susan (2008) Marie-Thérèse: the fate of Marie Antoinette’s daughter. Bloomsbury, London.

Fraser, Antonia (2001) Marie Antoinette: the Journey.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Moorehead, Caroline (2009) Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution. Chatto & Windus, London

Moran, Michelle (2011) Madame Tussaud: a novel of the French Revolution. Quercus, London.

Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle and Bertrand Rondot (editors) (2018) Visitors to Versailles from Louis XIV to the French Revolution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press.

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