Versailles by Kathryn Davis: How to Read Like a Writer
History, even more than fact, is story. In events and people from the past, writers can find plots, characters, and settings worthy of a novel like Kathryn Davis did in Versailles. Davis’s unique spin on Marie Antoinette blurs the line between historical fact and fantasy by making the palace of Versailles a character, giving Marie Antoinette a voice to tell her story, and using omniscient point of view to show other people’s perceptions.
Setting as Character
The novel is not called Versailles just because Marie Antoinette lived in the palace: It is titled Versailles because the palace itself is a major character. Each room is both a setting for Marie Antoinette and holds the memory of the people who passed through the halls before her. Davis uses omniscient point of view to reveal The Staircase of the Ambassadors and its ghosts:
Fifty-eight steps from the centermost of the three gilt-grilled front doors, across the vestibule’s rose-colored marble pavement and around a phalanx of dark squat piers supporting a dark low ceiling, to the foot of the staircase. Purposefully oppressive, the vestibule – echoey, claustrophobic . . . At the foot of the staircase the whole thing opens wide, like breath expelled after passing a graveyard. The infinite pours in through a massive skylight three stories up . . .
Ghosts are often associated with stairways, liking to hover at their head, or to drag noisy things such as chains up and down them. And don’t stairways provide an avenue of connection between two levels or, really, worlds? (54-55)
This stairway no longer exists when Marie Antoinette is living in the castle, but its memories and ghosts still do. The palace affects her just as much as she affects it. Marie Antoinette is known for her extravagance and constant alterations to the palace and it grounds, but the way the palace influenced her is not often acknowledged. She even had to change her name from Antonia to Antoinette in its halls.
Giving Marie Antoinette a Voice
From Historical Figure to Character
Instead of approaching the famous queen of France from the biased perspective of a historian, Davis seeks to humanize the well-known figure, to give her a distinct voice and the ability to speak for herself. The novel begins with:
My soul is going on a trip. I want to talk about her. . . . My soul is a girl: she is just like me. She is fourteen years old and has been promised in marriage to the French Dauphin . . . (1).
Davis starts with Marie Antoinette’s marriage to show how even as a child the queen rarely had a say in the major events of her life. She was royalty, and certain qualities, mannerisms, and abilities were expected of her. She was a young girl whisked away from not only her home but her country to marry a young boy and rule France. Davis approaches the historical figure like a character, a full person, instead of the one-sided spoiled queen many other historians and writers portray.
Allow Us Our Secrets
Versailles feels as if Marie Antoinette is speaking directly to the reader. Through first person point of view, she is telling her side of the story, her life experience. She invites the reader into her world describing the impression left on her by the palace of Versailles, how she believed the people around her perceived her, her opinions of her husband Louis, and even the fleas they lived with. The only secret Marie Antoinette withholds from the reader is whether or not she took lovers. She says:
Nor does it matter, really, if Axel was my lover, in the physical sense at least. That isn’t what matters, I know that now. It matters to historians, most of them men. It matters to gossips, most of them women. The pleasure is in the speculation (114).
In both these passages, readers get a sense of the fanciful imagination and whimsical approach to life Marie Antoinette was known for. These led to her extravagant expenditures. However, readers can also see this was a defense mechanism. Constantly on display, Marie Antoinette sought to create a world in which she had more privacy and control. Davis shows this through the events and thoughts Marie Antoinette chooses to describe and those she keeps secret.
The Mechanics of Voice
Davis creates Marie Antoinette’s voice both through the thoughts and events the character chooses to recount and through word choice. Because Marie Antoinette lived in the 1700’s, her diction and syntax were very different from modern ones. Davis shows this by having Marie Antoinette use words that aren’t common today like “bedchamber,” “dimity slippers,” “kobold,” and “bulwark” alongside more common words. When creating a first person character, word choice is essential. Diction and the experiences Marie Antoinette chooses to recount converge to create the strong, distinct, impactful voice of Marie Antoinette in Versailles as shown in the previous examples.
Sections of Versailles are written in the form of a play. The chapters begin by setting the scene, then dive into dialogue between the characters. Most plays are omniscient point of view. The audience/reader is able to see and hear what many if not all of the characters are doing and thinking. This is their purpose in Versailles: to show the reader what is happening in other parts of the country and what other people like the courtiers and commoners of France think about Marie Antoinette and her family.
By using omniscient point of view, Davis creates distance from Marie Antoinette to show a different perspective of the world and to step out of the queen’s interior life. Often the play sections reveal a danger Marie Antoinette seems unaware of such as when her brother speaks to his mistress:
JOSEPH: That he has to have the operation. That their lives depend on producing an heir. His moronic brother, Artois, already has two, you know, and a third on the way. Also, she has to stop gambling. Gambling and flirting. Her debts come to almost five hundred thousand livres.
JEANNE: Does she love him?
JOSEPH: I don’t know. Mercy told me she’s got the King wrapped around her little finger. She’s more like a mistress than a wife . . . (72).
Here Joseph informs the reader of the dangers a king and queen face if they don’t produce an heir and act appropriately and creates dramatic irony. He is hinting at problems with gossip and children to come. Marie Antoinette is not able to reveal this information because she doesn’t see the way other people view her gambling, flirting, and lack of consummation. In addition, Marie Antoinette was purposely closed off from the common people and others by her court, husband, station, and other aspects of her life. In order to create tension and show the reader the effect Marie Antoinette was having on her country, Davis used play forms and omniscient point of view.
Why a Professional Editor Recommends Versailles
I advise writers thinking about using omniscient point of view read Versailles because Davis uses omniscient in two different ways for two different reasons. When she describes the history and rooms of the palace, she is making Versailles a character. In the play sections, Davis reveals what characters in the greater world are thinking and feeling to create tension in the form of dramatic irony.
Omniscient is one of the most difficult points of view to pull off because of how distant the reader feels from the characters. Davis tempers this distance with chapters of first person narration. What omniscient point of view is ultimately doing in Versailles is creating a story larger than Marie Antoinette. Writers looking to tell a world’s story can learn how to use omniscient to accomplish this through Versailles. Kathryn Davis Ignites the Ink of Versailles by making the palace a character, giving Marie Antoinette a voice, and showing how other characters perceive the queen. These techniques can Ignite Your Ink too.
What do you think is working in Versailles? Let me know in the comments, and if you haven't read the novel, click the image on the right.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.