Getting into Marie Antoinette’s Head: Will Bashor on Writing Popular History

Most historians have at least an interest in popular history and at most a complete obsession with crafting narratives capable of transporting the reader through time and space. We interviewed Will Bashor in order to get a peek behind the curtain of a popular history writer. Will has written two great books, steeped in archival research, on one of the most engaging figures in the modern historical imagination – Marie Antoinette. Here is what he had to say.
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Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution. Lyons Press, 2013. Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

If you were to give advice to someone thinking of turning their research into historical fiction, where should they start? 

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether the research is sufficient to produce a compelling novel. Not only is it important to understand a period of time so well that you can picture yourself dressing, socializing, and working in it, but all of the information from the research must be observed critically. What to use and how much of the information to use is the test. Can you present your own narrative with historical precision without alienating the reader’s sensibilities?

Also, because additional research may be needed for new scenes, new characters and new settings, the time needed for writing historical fiction can be daunting. And it is often disconcerting to discover, after your work is published, that you have omitted an important detail or erred with respect to the timing of events or the placement of a certain personage. Even Ken Follet has experienced this.

How do you view biography? 

After juggling my schedule for almost three years to research, write, edit, and rewrite my biography about an obscure hairdresser that cut, curled, and powdered hair in France over 200 years ago, my first interviewer put me on the spot. “Why did it matter to you?”

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Leonard Autié, Coiffeur to Marie Antoinette

First, a life must be lived, then it must be written, and then it must be read before any biography ever really matters. A biography is the history of someone’s life, but it also reminds me of an image of a landscape in an artist’s imagination, one that needs to unravel on a blank canvas. A biography is indeed a history, but it is also a history of a life lived, requiring imagination and inspiration. To describe an obscure hairdresser’s infamous coiffures and yard-high poufs at the court of Versailles is one task, but to have the hairdresser himself stand out and shine among the celebrated courtiers, including the martyred Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, is quite another.

There are indeed important men and women in history whose lives must be written for their impact on our own lives, but there are also lives that are valuable not for any contributions they’ve made but rather for the manner in which they throw light upon a certain period or personage in history. I had read about the tragic effects of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s lavish reign leading to the Revolution, but how could I truly understand this tumultuous reign without spying on the covetous court favorites, the faithful royal servants like Leonard, or the famished peasants crying out for bread (unfortunately while Leonard was thought to powder the queen’s poufs with their dear flour)?

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Monsieur Leonard

 Leonard died in 1820 and cannot speak for himself, and, granted, I am not a distant relative, or even a hairdresser, but after coming across a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris, I remembered that she almost fainted at the sight of the red-hooded executioner in her prison cell that cold October morning in 1793, and she recoiled with horror when he asked her to turn around so he could cut her hair, necessary to ensure that the guillotine’s blade would work properly. Her hair. It was the talk of all Europe when she held her elaborate court at Versailles. But it would be the last thing to go, and here was a lock of it. I was spellbound, and here was an artist’s image that had to be painted — or written on a blank page of paper.

When reading such a biography, shouldn’t there really be three individuals involved the experience: Leonard who experienced the glamour, the decadence, and the danger of his times; the author who recreates his story; and the reader in an easy chair bringing the story to life? When visitors at the Louvre see the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo for the first time, doesn’t the image become theirs forever?  Likewise, when we read a biography to the point where an obscure hairdresser becomes a living, breathing, and credible being, although we put the book back on the shelf, doesn’t he remain ours forever? It is surely great to walk among the living, but it is also wonderful to know that there were others before us.

Writing a biography matters, because it gives us a background for our own lives, and we become, hopefully, part of what Shakespeare called the “great humanity.”

What is the most difficult part of the process? 

Dialogue and gender roles are most troublesome for me when portraying a particular period. Dialogue must be appropriate to speakers according to their social standing and still ring true to the manners of speech of the period. I find that referring to literature and plays of the period can be helpful when analyzing speech patterns for various character types.

Gender poses different problems. Contemporary readers may be easily alienated when accurately portraying a period when it was socially acceptable, for example, for men to beat their wives. Similarly, considering that girls married younger in past ages, writing sex scenes in historical fiction can be problematic when values of the period do not reflect those of current times.

What are you working on now?

Fascinated by the Cathar Inquisition, I’ve recently moved to Albi, a small medieval village in Southern France, to work on my new historical novel. Although I still face all the challenges that I mentioned earlier, immersing myself among the romantic, but ruined, Cathar castles and fortified hilltops keeps me motivated to research and recreate scenes from these turbulent times.

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