Saturday 10 July 2010

An interview with Elena Maria Vidal, author of "Trianon"

Following this blog's review of her debut novel, "Trianon," based on the lives of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution, I'm delighted to welcome American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, to discuss the novel and her writing process.

GR: Elena-Maria, thank you for doing this interview and welcome to "Confessions of a Ci-Devant." Although, that welcome is probably tardy and unnecessary - your comments on some of my posts have been some of my favourites – and it’s in no small part due to how much I enjoyed your blog, “Tea at Trianon,” that I decided to embark upon writing my own!

EMV: Thank you, Gareth, for the interview and for the support of my books. And your blog is a wonderful contribution for its wit and genuine scholarship.

GR: I think one of the things that made “Trianon” such a joy to read is that you and I have both written works that mirror each other’s – in that, they cover the same period and have many overlapping characters. “Trianon” is set before the Revolution, as is my play “The Audacity of Ideas,” whilst their respective sequels “Madame Royale” and “All Those Who Suffered,” both deal with the fates of Marie-Antoinette’s children in the years after the Revolution. Knowing what it’s like to write on the period, I know there’s a huge amount of research that has to go into the writing process – before we even begin writing, as it were. How much research did you do on Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before starting on “Trianon” and did you start the research with the intent of writing a novel about them, or did the research generate the idea of writing the novel itself?

EMV: Yes, Gareth, your plays and my novels include many of the same characters, and we have similar takes on those characters. I began reading about Marie-Antoinette when I was nine. I was so moved by her story that I covered my school notebooks with drawings of her, and liked to coiffure my Barbie dolls in eighteenth century bouffants with plumes. I continued to read various books about Marie-Antoinette throughout the years. By the time I was a grad student I had visited Versailles twice, but it was not until I saw a picture of Petit Trianon in Smithsonian Magazine that I felt inspired to write something about the Queen. It was just a photo of a staircase, but in my mind’s eye I could see Marie-Antoinette walking down it. I wanted to capture a moment in time, one of those happy moments that were like islands in a sea of tragedy in the life of Marie-Antoinette. I was already deep into research about the French Revolution as part of my graduate studies. I wrote the Prologue and then put the whole thing aside for ten years.

After a trip to Vienna I found the manuscript and the notebooks with my research in my father’s basement. I felt inspired by my trip to Vienna to take it up again, but I decided to include the Revolution, without which the inner strength of Marie-Antoinette does not come into its fullness. I researched as I went along and have continued to do so even after the publication of the first edition. I am still researching. There is always more to learn.

GR: You write under the name of “Elena Maria Vidal,” which is a pen-name, and your marital surname is “Russell.” So, I’d just like to clear up for those who have asked the question, alas – we are not related! What was the reason for writing under the name “Elena Maria Vidal”?

EMV: My husband Mike Russell is related to the Russells who are the Dukes of Bedford. So if you are related to the Dukes of Bedford, then you are probably related to my husband. But that’s funny that people think we are related! Let them think that if they want!

As for my nom-de-plume, I write under my grandmother’s name. During the EWTN BookMark interview Doug Keck asked me the reason for using a pen name and I replied it to honor my grandmother. As a child I used to say to her, “Grandma, tell me about your life.” Maria Magdalena Vidal was born on May 25, 1904 on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Her mother, Mamerta Arnibal, was an exotic beauty with dark skin and chiseled features, of Asian and Spanish descent, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Mamerta caught the glance of a poor young Spaniard, Jaime Vidal. They married and she was disinherited. He died, leaving my great-grandmother and grandmother in a vulnerable state. Mamerta was kidnapped and forced to marry a man she did not love. Magdalena was being abused so to save her child’s life, Mamerta took her to an orphanage for mixed race children. My grandmother overcame a deprived childhood to become a gifted teacher, and later she had to deal with an abusive and unfaithful husband, the death of a child, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and divorce. In my childhood, Grandma Magdalena would spend the summers with us in Maryland. She was always immaculately dressed and coifed, always busy, never wasting a moment of time. As she crocheted, she would tell me about her life. A stroke destroyed her health and she had to move to a nursing home. She died on November 12, 1987. Whenever my life takes a difficult turn, I remember her courage and resourcefulness during the worst of times. She is one of the most beloved people of my life, whose influence upon me has no measure.

GR: Throughout “Trianon” we are constantly changing perspectives – a device which I loved. For example, the prologue is told from the point-of-view of the great 18th century artist, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Chapter One from the viewpoint of the King’s aunt, Louise, and Chapter Two from the viewpoint of his eldest daughter – and so on. What was the reason behind choosing so many different narrators and how did you select who to centre each chapter upon?

EMV: At first I wanted it all to be from the point of view of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, the oldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. But then I realized that there were many things that Thérèse would have no knowledge of. So I decided to paint a portrait of Marie-Antoinette through the eyes of those closest to her, beginning with Madame Lebrun. I wanted it to be a portrait come to life, a frozen slice of time which nevertheless reveals the truth of the matter.

GR: There are a wealth of characters in “Trianon.” Apart from Louis XVI or Marie-Antoinette, who was your favourite to write, and why?

EMV: Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, definitely. She later became the heroine of my novel Madame Royale, which is about to go into its second edition with your kind endorsement. I relate a great deal to Thérèse. She started life as the daughter of the King of the grandest kingdom in the world. She was THE princess. By the time she was seventeen she was a homeless orphan. In my late teens my parents separated, beginning long years of conflict and confusion, resulting in the destruction of my family circle. The world of my childhood vanished forever. Like Thérèse I had a strong sense of displacement and experienced post-traumatic stress from which it took years to recover. I have a tiny glimmer of what she went through, which I try to convey in the books.

GR: I felt very strongly that, when I was reading “Trianon’s” prologue, there was a hint of a self-portrait in your portrayal of Madame Vigée-Lebrun and her determination to render a faithful portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Did you feel under a certain amount of pressure to convey the Queen accurately in “Trianon”?

EMV: Very much so, Gareth. Around the time I was writing Trianon, I had a dream of Marie-Antoinette. I saw her sitting with her children on a sofa in a glittering salon, as clear as day, although the scene around them was blurry. The Queen looked right at me and said: “I want people to see us as we really were.” It was only a dream, and there is no accounting for the tricks the subconscious mind will play, but I think that the anecdote illustrates my desire to paint the most accurate portrait possible, a living portrait of words.

GR: One character that fascinates me is that of Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac, one of Marie-Antoinette’s favourites. She takes centre-stage in “The Audacity of Ideas” and you and I have had some private discussions about her. What is your personal opinion of Gabrielle de Polignac?

EMV: I think that Gabrielle has been maligned as much as Marie-Antoinette . She is usually portrayed in books and films as Marie-Antoinette's "bad girl" friend, responsible for leading the young queen of France into a wild, decadent lifestyle. Often depicted as a greedy, spendthrift slut, Gabrielle preferred simplicity, was a devoted mother and loyal friend of both Louis and Antoinette. She wore simple, tasteful clothes, never wore perfume or flashy gems, such as diamonds. Cheerful and discreet, a lover of music and the outdoors, Gabrielle was a refined lady of enchanting grace and beauty. Authors such as Philippe Delorme, the Coursacs, and Bernard Fay maintain that Louis XVI encouraged his wife to befriend Gabrielle, and so created for her a circle of politically "safe" friends.

Marie-Antoinette also needed a calm, motherly companion, older than herself, to advise her about her difficulties in her marriage, her fears about pregnancy and childbirth. Gabrielle was such a friend, soothing the queen in her moments of hysteria and depression. Louis XVI held her in high regard, and gave a high office to her husband so that the Polignacs could afford to live at court. Madame de Polignac was the only person Louis XVI ever visited in a private home; he sat with her at the opera, and wrote to her when she left Versailles. As the royal family grew, the king and queen entrusted Gabrielle with their children, being that she had showed herself to be an exemplary mother of her own three. Gabrielle influenced the queen to adopt simpler styles.

GR: You’ve said before that the story of the abuse of Marie-Antoinette’s young son, Louis-Charles, by the revolutionaries, was harrowing to research and write. I wrote “All Those Who Suffered” about his case when I was seventeen and I remember reading Deborah Cadbury’s book “The Lost King of France” and being both horrified and shocked by what had happened to him. Or, rather, been inflicted upon him. How much did you know about the abuse of Louis XVII and, as a mother, did you feel a kinship with Marie-Antoinette in that terrible moment in the courtroom?

EMV: I actually know more about the sufferings of the Dauphin now than when I first wrote Trianon, but I knew enough then from reading biographies and memoirs to be right on target. I was not yet married when I described the horrors of Temple, and did not have my own children. However, I had small half-brothers and a half sister whom I helped to care for and whom I loved like my own children. The thought of anything happening to them gave me an idea of what Marie-Antoinette experienced. Now that I am a mother, I feel even deeper kinship with Marie-Antoinette. I can no longer watch the scene in the film Marie-Antoinette with Norma Shearer in which they take Louis-Charles away.

GR: Which movie portrayal of Marie-Antoinette has been your favourite and if you could have any modern actor or actress play Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in an adaptation of “Trianon,” who would it be?

EMV: I thought Norma Shearer was excellent as Marie-Antoinette in the 1938 version (below). The best portrayal of all time is that of Ute Lemper in L’Autrichienne. I always thought that Kate Winslet would have made a good Marie-Antoinette, and perhaps Scarlett Johannsen. Romola Garai would make a wonderful Marie-Antoinette.

GR: A lot of readers will be wanting to do further research on the French Royal Family after “Trianon,” I’m sure. What books would you recommend for them?

EMV: The best biography in English is the 1930’s two volume work by Nesta Webster. If one can get around Nesta’s extreme politics, her character studies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are brilliant and based upon original documents. Her research was exhaustive. The biographies of Vincent Cronin and Desmond Seward are also quite good. In the French language, there is nothing like L’Insoumise by Simone Bertière. I would also recommend Philippe Delorme’s biography. I encourage people to visit my Tea at Trianon blog where on the sidebar I have articles I have written along with links to other sources and sites of interest.

GR: Congratulations on the publication of “The Night’s Dark Shade”! What is next for Elena Maria Vidal?

EMV: Thank you, Gareth. I went through a lot with The Night’s Dark Shade but it has all been worth it, since it is selling steadily, especially on Amazon Kindle where it is usually ranked among the top 100 books about France. Presently I am working on a novel based on the life of my great-great- great-grandfather Daniel O’Connor, who left County Cork in the 1820’s to build a new life in the Canadian wilderness. He and his family were people of great integrity who never let hardships get them down. I am almost half way through but have a great deal more to go.


  1. What a very moving and heartfelt interview.

  2. And thanks for using the picture of me in my Scots regalia! I am wearing the MacLaughland tartan.


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