Chantal Thomas is the author of the new novel The Exchange of Princesses, which looks at two 18th century marriages between French and Spanish royal children. She has written many other books, including the novel Farewell, My Queen.
Q: Why did you decide to write about these particular princesses, and why as a novel rather than nonfiction?
A: This novel follows Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), and Le testament d’Olympe. My novels “progress” by going back in time, and Louis XV appears as a character in both. In Le testament d’Olympe he is 50 years old.
So I read a lot about him and was struck by the loneliness of his childhood and by the episode, never recounted, of his first marriage as a child to a Spanish princess, his first cousin.
This is how I came to discover Anna Maria Victoria and Louise-Elisabeth, through Saint-Simons’s Memoirs. I was inspired by the situation of these two very young princesses, the mixing of courtly splendour with the brutality of their destinies.
For that particular tale nonfiction would have been rather dry. The story can be told in one paragraph (and this is in fact the way it is told in history books).
Only fiction makes people and places concretely and sensually exist, with their complexity and ambiguities. Fiction puts the reader in sympathy with the characters and lets us realize, and feel, that the past is part of ourself.
Q: How did you research the novel, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I of course read history books, but also newspapers of that time, memoirs, and correspondences. I looked at paintings and clothes, and spent a lot of time in Versailles and in the Spanish castles (El Escorial, for instance) where my characters had lived.
What surprised me most were the few letters written by Louise Elisabeth, the future queen of Spain. They are full of mistakes, almost incoherent, but they clearly express that she is lost and in despair. I read them in the archives of Madrid and was very moved.
Q: The princesses and their husbands were children--one of them only 4 years old. How were royal children treated during this period?
A: They had many servants and were thus never alone. A governor or a governess took care of them. Usually they did not have an intimate relationship with their parents. They were treated in ceremonies as future kings or queens, and they spent a lot of their time – still, stiff, silent – in religious ceremonies.
Q: How were relations at that point between France and Spain?
A: They were calm. The marriages were a way to maintain and consolidate the peace.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A book on my childhood and on the place where I grew up: the little town of Arcachon, near Bordeaux.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb