NEW YORK — History can turn even the most vibrant characters dull with its thick, cloudy veneer. But with her newly released novel, “Versailles,” Kathryn Davis rescues Marie Antoinette from that fate. Beginning with her trip from Vienna to Versailles to be married at the age of 14, Davis brushes off the cobwebs and buffs up the queen’s persona until it’s vivid.
A sweet and clever Antoinette herself narrates the story from the beyond, telling of life trapped in Versailles’ gilded maze among the mirrors and fountains, and the courtiers who launch plots against her. “She wasn’t one of those women who wrote masses of letters,” says Davis. “That leaves her more of a cipher and more open to interpretation.”
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Although Davis did tremendous amounts of research for the novel — reading all three volumes of the Duke of Saint-Simon’s memoirs, for example — she didn’t let it drag the book down. Her Antoinette is as unstuffy as they come. She tells of her first night with the introverted King, who shies away from his bride, preferring the plum tart he has brought into their nuptial bed. She describes mornings with Monsieur Léonard, who climbs a small ladder and, armed with nettle juice, bean flour, steel pins, small pillows and pomade, creates the royal coiffeur.
“Cypress and black marigolds and wheat sheaves and fruit-filled cornucopias — a hairdo reminding everyone that while they mourned the loss of one King, they also looked forward to the bounty the next would bring,” Davis writes. “Or how about the Inoculation Hairdo, commemorating the Princess’ victory over smallpox. One day Léonard made me Minerva. One day he made me an English garden with lawns, hills and streams. One day, he made me the world.”
The queen who bathed in a swan-shaped tub and glided across Versailles’ marble floors with tiny steps, practicing the Versailles Walk, in diamond-soled slippers, seems an unlikely subject for Davis, whose last novel, “The Walking Tour,” centered on a couple’s extra-marital adventures during a walking tour of Wales. But the centuries since Marie Antoinette’s death haven’t dimmed the doomed queen’s power of enchantment.
“I gradually became very possessed by her personality,” says Davis, who teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Vermont with her husband and their daughter. “The most peculiar thing was that I began to realize that she reminded me of my mother. There was sort of a sweet and hapless quality to my mother. She was very intelligent, and like many mothers in the Fifties, was out of her element in a way.
“The more I learned about Antoinette, the deeper attachment I had to her,” Davis adds. “I really do miss her. That voice in my head was pretty persistent.”
Antoinette’s voice becomes most persistent toward the book’s end as the Revolution begins and she is forced deeper into seclusion, though Davis doesn’t let her story turn maudlin. Of Antoinette’s life behind bars, she writes: “Sometimes the other prisoners would come by to kiss my shoes. Prisoner Number 280: bored out of her mind.”
Of course, some few years back, Davis herself found the queen’s life boring. On a family trip with her high school-aged daughter, the writer was forced to visit Versailles. “I didn’t even want to go. I had been there in high school and had thought it was a really tedious place, but then I was astonished to experience a dawning feeling, like falling in love,” she says. “It’s not the kind of place I’d want to live, but my imagination wanted to dwell there.”