It began when I was just four years old when my grandparents allowed me to watch the Blue Peter Special Assignment show Marie Antoinette at Versailles while I was eating my supper. I distinctly remember mechanically dipping toast fingers into my boiled egg and munching on them, hardly looking down at the plate so wide eyed and riveted was I by the spectacle unfolding on the little box in the corner with the beautiful Queen first surrounded by the splendours of her palace and then, frighteningly, held captive in a nasty dank little cell. Worryingly, this is one of my earliest clear memories.
That night I dreamed of Versailles and the diamond spangled Queen with enormous white hair and the next morning, after breakfast I bedecked myself with various items from my dressing up box: an old silk nightdress, some strings of pearls and a pair of sparkly high heeled shoes along with a black glittery shawl and a huge pale blue straw hat before rushing out to the rose garden of the Scottish castle where I spent my earliest childhood, there to spend a very long time wandering to and fro with a basket, picking flowers and ‘playing at Marie Antoinette’ as I was to call it.
This phase went on for quite some time. If I wasn’t dressing up and pretending to be Marie Antoinette, I was drawing pictures of her and if I wasn’t doing that then I was writing stories and pretend letters and diaries for her. After a while other historical obsessions took over – for instance there was a lengthy period at primary school when I insisted on attending every day dressed in an Anne Boleyn costume that my grandmother had made for me.
However, Marie Antoinette was always my first and longest love. I had the Vincent Cronin book Louis and Antoinette out all the time from the library and read it over and over again, followed by that by André Castelot and then others. Eventually, in my mid teens my obsessing about Marie Antoinette broadened into a general obsession with the French Revolution, at which point, thwarted by the then shoddy selection of books on offer, I supplemented my GCSE French classes with extra studying at home until I was fluent enough to read the French biographies and history books that I was collecting during our many family holidays to France.
I was fourteen when I first visited Paris. I actually arrived a few days after the huge celebrations of 1989 and the stage that Jean Michel Jarre had performed on was still there outside our hotel. I believe that I may have had a slightly drunken climb up on to it. I was in heaven though – Paris the longed for city was every bit as magical as I had expected and I proceeded to tour all the places that I had read about so often and for so long: the Conciergerie, the Carnavalet, the Place de la Concorde, Versailles…
At Versailles, I went around the state rooms twice and managed to trip over the second time that I visited Marie Antoinette’s rooms, which prompted the kindly curators to lead me out through the door beside the Queen’s bed, yes the very door through which she escaped in October 1789. I could hardly believe my good fortune.
I think my interest in Marie Antoinette reached its peak though when I came to write my dissertation at university. It was the custom in my facility for it to be based on something researched during a week long visit to a European city, which rotated year by year. The year above us went to Rome (and I being a rich sod at the time, went with them) while our year was supposed to go to Venice. However, they decided at the last minute that this was unethical or something due to the deteriorating state of the city so instead off we went to Paris.
I honestly really really tried to think of something different and fresh to write about while I was there, but I am afraid that I am basically a very lazy person at heart and so I opted to write about depictions of Marie Antoinette in pre and post Revolutionary art. This seemed to involve lurking around the Picpus cemetery, the Chapelle Expiatoire, St Denis, Malmaison and Versailles an awful lot while looking gothic and mournful. It could have gone badly (especially as I wrote it over the course of three days due to the aforementioned laziness and my closest course chum was an alcoholic who neglected to write anything so I effectively had to write his essay too – on depictions of Napoleon) but I got one of the highest marks in the year so clearly la Reine was smiling on me that day. Sadly this work of no doubt epic genius (it really wasn’t) is no longer with us as I loaned it to a well known sculptor, Jan Niedojadlo, that I did some work for and he proceeded to rather unapologetically lose it. What a git.
I’ve made up for it since though, I think. I’ve written loads on here for a start (this was supposed to be a Marie Antoinette blog before it quickly turned into a turgid mess with no discernable direction or purpose) as well as a book about her life before she married the Dauphin and she has lurked in the background of both my subsequent books: Blood Sisters and the upcoming Before The Storm.
I think it will be a long time before she makes another appearance in my books but on the other hand, I am always looking for excuses to visit Versailles…