The France of 1755 is a country of extremes. The streets of Paris are filled with the poor and downtrodden, while a few miles away is the Palace of Versailles, with its famous Hall of Mirrors where courtiers under the watchful eye of Louis XV spend the hours in extravagance unending. Once known as Louis the Beloved, the king steadily lost ground with his people, and even his long-term relationship with Madame de Pompadour entered a new phase. To maintain her power and please the king’s changing appetites, Madame appealed to Dominic-Guillaume Lebel, the valet. He set up a school in Deer Park, near the palace, where carefully selected 13- and 14-year-old girls from poor families could master basic literacy, painting, music, dance, embroidery, manners and court protocol. Those who succeed in pleasing the king leave with a dowry and income for life. Even those who fail receive some sort of financial settlement.
Véronique Roux, the daughter of a struggling printer, enters school and does well, until a chance remark results in her hasty dismissal. Years later, a little girl named Marie-Louise – whom we know from the cover of the book that she is the daughter of Véronique, fathered by the king and torn from her mother at birth – is summoned to Versailles and entrusted to two of Madame de Pompadour’s servants for her. education. Marie-Louise wants nothing more than to find the parents who abandoned her, without knowing who they are, and through her story we see the links between Louis XV’s failures as a ruler and the French Revolution of 1789. .
Eva Stachniak takes the element of real-life school in Deer Park and constructs it, through the fictional characters of Véronique and Marie-Louise, into a powerful indictment of both a declining monarchy and the radicals who sought to overthrow it at any cost, even after their initial idealism caused them to turn against each other.
PLC: Who is Véronique Roux when the novel opens in 1755?
ES: She’s beautiful and she’s poor, which is a qualification to be one of the Deer Park girls. She is also very young, and at that time the people around the king – her valet, Madame de Pompadour – want to ensure that his sexual entertainment does not involve serious relationships, especially not with powerful and aristocratic women. So they picked a poor helpless girl – hopefully also naive, so that he would be titillated and could introduce himself as this very powerful and very dashing man, a mysterious count from Poland. His father was a printer who died and left the family destitute. They had dreams and hopes, and so the mother is quite open to a proposal from the palace that would allow her daughter to be taken away and have a better future.
PLC: When Véronique arrives in Deer Park, she meets two girls: Francine, who becomes her friend, and Claire, whom she doesn’t like very much. What can you tell us about them?
ES: I’ve read a lot about the kind of girls that have been taken to this place, and I’ve picked two types. Francine is very direct, very down-to-earth, and she realizes a lot more about what is going on than she lets on. At one point, she says no to everything, and that ends her participation. I don’t really know what will happen to her later, but at least she has a chance to get out of this emotionally unscathed, unlike Veronique. Claire, on the other hand, is manipulative, which is another type of girl who would survive Deer Park. She realizes there is a chance and she can use it – “they will use me, and I can use them.” Thus, she too will not be emotionally hurt; she will get her dowry and all she can, then disappear into the fog of history. Francine and Claire show the other two possibilities of how the girls reacted to being in Deer Park.
PLC: Let’s talk about Marie-Louise, the heroine of the second part of the book. Who is she and what does she want the most from life?
ES: My first image was of a girl from Deer Park who is pregnant and needs to be “taken care of”. So the baby was already there, and I was thinking about what she was going to inherit. What would be his legacy? I had always wanted a girl, so I wanted Veronique to have a girl. On his mother’s side, there would be her beauty, her charm, her ability to please people – a certain resilience, certainly, and warmth. But his father is the king. I wanted there to be something real about her, and I also wanted to connect historically to Louis XV, who was a very reluctant king. I read a lot about him, and the perfect historical detail that I came across is that he always wanted to be a surgeon, a doctor. He was fascinated by medicine and constantly gave his courtiers medical advice, whether solicited or not. I wanted my heroine to inherit some of those characteristics. She looks royal; she is not docile or submissive like her mother is. From her father, she inherits this certainty about who she is and what she wants in life, and her interest is also medical. She grows up among midwives, and that’s what she becomes.
Eva Stachniak is the author of two novels on Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace and empress of the night, and four other books. Find out more about her and her books at https://www.evastachniak.
CP Lesley is the author of two series of historical fiction set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. His next book, sinner’s songwill be released in January 2022.