Friday Royal Read: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (Historical Fiction)

For centuries, Europe’s rulers sealed political alliances with dynastic marriages between their children. This practice was already criticized in the 16th century. The humanist philosopher Erasmus wrote in his 1516 treatise, Erasmus: The Education of a Christian Prince that these royal marriages did not bring peace. He observed that England and Scotland still went to war with each other after the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in 1503. Erasmus also remarked that the princesses themselves were unhappy about being “sent away to remote places” and “would be happier if they could live among their own people, even though with less pompous display.”

The princesses sent to these remote places also complained about their fate. In 1514, Isabella of Austria wrote to one of her sisters, “It is hard enough to marry a man…whom you do not know or love, and worse still to be required to leave home and kindred, and follow a stranger to the ends of the earth, without even being able to speak his language (Retha Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England, p. 3-4). Despite the shortcomings of dynastic marriage for both political stability and personal happiness, the practice continued into the nineteenth century and royalty were expected to marry other royalty until the First World War.

In France and Spain, the exchange of princesses was a tradition that lasted from 1559 until 1739. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV married princesses from the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg and Louis XV seemed destined to also make a Spanish match. In The Exchange of Princesses, historian and novelist Chantal Thomas, author of the novel, Farewell, My Queen and scholarly study, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette dramatizes an early eighteenth century exchange of princesses between France and Spain and the unhappiness that followed for the young princes and princesses involved.

Thomas excels at looking behind the glamorous facade of eighteenth century European royal courts. In Farewell, My Queen and the film based on the novel, Farewell My Queen / Les Adieux à la Reine, there were as many scenes set in the flea ridden servants’ quarters of Versailles as in Marie Antoinette’s elegant rooms at Petit Trianon. In The Exchange of Princesses, the princesses experience separation from their families, extreme discomfort traveling between France and Spain on muddy roads, unfamiliar customs when they reach their destinations and grotesque illnesses from measles to smallpox. The atmosphere of both courts and the eccentricities of the individual characters are vividly portrayed as neither match goes according to plan.

The style of the novel is unusual. Thomas focuses closely on the two royal couples brought together by the The Exchange of Princesses: King Louis XV of France and Mariana Victoria of Spain and Luis I of Spain and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans. Mariana Victoria is between the ages of four and seven over the course of the novel and Louise Élisabeth is  gradually losing her mind and their perspectives therefore reflect extreme youth and mental illness respectively. Amidst the alternating stream of consciousness of these two princesses and the people who surround them are actual letters written by the historical figures involved in the The Exchange of Princesses, newspaper accounts from the period and the author’s own asides from her travels. While all this additional material provides interesting context and detail, it sometimes slows down the narrative and creates distance between the reader and the characters.

In The Exchange of Princesses, Thomas brings alive a little known episode in the history of France and Spain that was one of the last of a series of exchanges of its kind. Both Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth were sent to remote places and may well have been happier if they had been permitted to remain among their own people with less pompous display.

Next Week: The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada by Nathan Tidridge

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