I wrote a ghost, and I liked it, the taste of her ectoplasm and old tears…

15 November 2011

Oh, I am having such a lovely time writing my seventeenth century novel, especially since I quite accidentally added a dash of supernatural fun to the mix. I have tried in the past to write paranormal fiction (the ill fated Heyerish novel about a sensible English heroine and dashing French officer set during Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt) but I felt a bit embarrassed doing so as it isn’t really my métier, despite my being a bit of a (okay, alright, rather a lot of a) goth.

This time, however, it was all completely unplanned and just happened organically and you know what, I really like it.

Other things that I am enjoying about writing this book are focussing on Fontainebleau rather than Versailles for a change and also getting to know Charles II a lot better. I’ve always rather fancied Charles but now I think I sort of love him. He’s so complicated though – all that Merry Monarch stuff isn’t really all that accurate as he was at heart quite profoundly melancholy (well, depressed really but I’m not one to diagnose the long dead). I also adore how massively excited he was about science and love to imagine what it would be like if he stepped through a magic portal at Whitehall into our time. I expect he would have an absolute ball running around town and getting all overexcited about the advances we have made since his times. He’d be watching operations, visiting the Hadron Collider, bribing NASA to let him fly into space…

The other thing that really interests me is the relationship between the first cousins, Louis XIV and Charles II – in many ways I am reminded of George V and his cousins, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm who were all similar to look at (confusingly so in the case of George and Nicholas) but also at the mercy of forces far greater than bonds of blood or affection. So it was for Louis and Charles and I’m really enjoying finding out more about the dynamic between them.

I’m also reading a LOT about Marie Adélaïde de Savoie, Duchesse de Bourgogne as my book begins and ends with her. Marie Adélaïde has been one of my favourite historical people since I was a very young girl and it’s been an absolute pleasure to find out more about her.

I’ve just enjoyed reading the memoirs of Liselotte, the second Duchesse d’Orléans, who was a Protestant princess and the granddaughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia and therefore also niece of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, great granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots and cousin of the Stuart brood including her predecessor as Duchesse, Henrietta Anne. Liselotte doesn’t seem to have liked many people beyond her husband (of whom she gives a surprisingly affectionate account – I particularly liked her description of how his handwriting was so bad that he used to bring his letters to her to ask her what he had just written) and her brother in law, Louis XIV, whom she had the most IMMENSE crush on. The way that she writes about Marie Adélaïde, Madame de Maintenon and all of Louis’ various mistresses and children is quite scathing though and not always in an entertaining way. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is as a resource but it makes an interesting diversion.

One thing that has amused me in my readings though is a description of the education of the young Duc de Bourgogne (Louis XIV’s grandson who married Marie Adélaïde a few years after her arrival in France and went on to become father of Louis XV) at the hands of the celebrated Fénelon, whose educational ideas were considered extremely radical in the 17th century although they seem very normal to us today.

Fénelon believed very strongly in regular meal times, not too much arduous learning of facts, no punishment other than being sent to bed early or the removal of treats and a lot of exercise:

‘Give children well bound books, even books with gilt edges. Let them have good illustrations and fine printing, and be full of stories and tales of wonder. That done, have no fear that the child will not learn to read. Children love to hear absurd stories; you may see them every day in fits of laughter, or shedding tears at what you tell them. Be sure to use this to good advantage, and when you see that they are in the mood to listen, tell them some short, pretty tale. Choose animal fables that are innocent and well contrived. Narrate them quite simply and explain the moral.’ — Fénelon.

The royal princes diet was a pretty austere one compared to that carefully and lovingly planned for Marie Adélaïde by Madame de Maintenon and which I will save for another day:

Breakfast – dry bread and water.

Dinner – Boiled beef three times a week or stewed chicken or pheasant accompanied by a lot of bread and two glasses of a light burgundy, beer or cider.

Afternoon tea – dry bread or biscuits with water.

Supper – Stewed mutton or veal with a game or chicken dish and a marzipan cake or candied orange.

They had four hours of lessons every day – learning only Latin alongside their own French (other languages were considered unnecessary for a prince of France who etiquette decreed should only ever be addressed in French or Latin); maths wasn’t much bothered with because princes didn’t have to do sums (to the annoyance of Bourgogne, who loved it) and creative writing and playing musical instruments was expressly forbidden as it would ‘bring them into competition with ordinary mortals, a most undesirable event for princes who must always excel‘ — Lucy Norton.

What they did learn was a lot of Latin, religious instruction, geography and history alongside lessons in statesmanship and the command of armies. The Duc de Bourgogne, we are told, developed a passionate love of his grandfather’s musketeers when he was a little boy and as a sixth birthday treat, Louis XIV ‘enrolled’ the little boy with the regiment and gave him a miniature uniform and pony. Lucy Norton writes that ‘If the King… designed to dampen the child’s ardour… he was never more mistaken. The little duke threw himself into learning his drill with such passionate eagerness, and to such good effect, that when, on a pouring wet day, in June 1689, the King reviewed his musketeers in the great courtyard of Versailles, there was his little grandson, present and correct, mounted on his miniature black charger, on the foremost rank…

Ah, I love that story. I’ll have to write that one into the book!

Minette is still the heart of the story though and I’m learning so much about her now, mainly thanks to her letters but also by reading more contemporary accounts. I love this portrait of her – Louis XIV’s favourite colour was a flame, almost orangey red and you often see it in portraits of the people close to him.

I’d better get back to it although I’m so excited by this project that I appear to be having thoughts about writing a follow up book set in the seventeenth century France as soon as I’ve finished.

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