Kate Heartfield is joining us today to talk about her novel, The Embroidered Book. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Brimming with romance, betrayal, and enchantment, The Embroidered Book reveals and reimagines a dazzling period of history as you have never seen it before.
‘Power is not something you are given. Power is something you take. When you are a woman, it is a little more difficult, that’s all’
1768. Charlotte, daughter of the Habsburg Empress, arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Her sister Antoine is sent to France, and in the mirrored corridors of Versailles they rename her Marie Antoinette.
The sisters are alone, but they are not powerless. When they were only children, they discovered a book of spells – spells that work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.
In a time of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, they use the book to take control of their lives.
But every spell requires a sacrifice. And as love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.
What’s Kate’s favorite bit?
One day in 2015, I was struck by a paragraph in chapter three of Antonia Fraser’s wonderful biography: Marie Antoinette: The Journey. In 1767, Fraser explained, the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa found it necessary to separate two of her children: 15-year-old Charlotte and her sister Antoine, who was nearly 12. Until then, the two girls were raised as though they were twins; Maria Theresa’s many children tended to pair off with whichever sibling was closest in age. The two girls resembled each other and had what Fraser calls a “symbiotic relationship.”
Charlotte and Antoine had been getting up to mischief and their mother decided they were a bad influence on each other. That enforced separation in 1767 is all the more poignant because a year later, they’d be separated for good, when Charlotte went off to marry the king of Naples, and became queen Maria Carolina. Antoine, of course, went off to marry the Dauphin, and became Marie Antoinette of France.
Like many accidents of history, this outcome was caused by smallpox. Charlotte was never supposed to go to Naples, but two of her older sisters died, leaving Charlotte the unlucky bride of the boorish Ferdinand. Antoine did not have the temperament to navigate the French court and the fragile French-Austrian alliance, but once Charlotte was sent to Naples, Maria Theresa was out of marriageable girls. It would have to be Antoine for France.
The sisters never saw each other again. But they wrote to each other all their lives, and it was Charlotte who tried hardest to save Antoinette’s life during the French Revolution, pulling every Habsburg string she could, to no avail. In a biography of Charlotte – A Sister of Marie Antoinette, by Catherine Mary Bearne – I read that after her sister’s execution, Charlotte had a portrait of Antoinette hung in her study, with an inscription below it: “I will pursue my vengeance unto the grave.”
Novels usually have more than one point of inception. There were other bits and pieces collecting in my mind in 2015, and several reasons I was interested in the ways history records (or doesn’t record) the lives of powerful women. But those two moments in the relationship between these sisters got into my bones. I felt I understood how Charlotte and Antoinette felt for each other, because I have a sister myself. When we were young, we vowed that we would save each other, no matter where in the world we went or what terrible trouble we found ourselves in. There’s a fierceness to that kind of sisterly love that endures even through long separations.
And there was something about that summer of 1767 that tickled my imagination. What sort of trouble could two archduchesses get up to, that would cause their mother to separate them? I’m a speculative fiction writer, so the answer came to me right away: magic.
In my novel, The Embroidered Book, magic is kept out of the hands of most people by a secret society that isn’t quite able to prevent the occasional spell or enchanted object from falling into the hands of the wrong people. One of those people was the archduchesses’ first governess – the only major character in the novel who is entirely invented. She was killed, but left behind a spellbook in the sewing basket, and so Charlotte and Antoinette have a shared secret, and a source of power. They choose to use it in different ways, and the sacrifices they make threaten their relationship, as Europe spirals into revolution and war.
I knew that somehow, despite all its twists and turns, the book would end with that portrait, with the vow of sisterly vengeance. The long, evolving relationship between Charlotte and Antoinette is my favorite bit, the thread that runs through the whole novel. So when it came time to choose a dedication for The Embroidered Book, my decision was instant. It reads: “For my sister.”
Kate Heartfield’s latest novel, The Embroidered Book, is a Sunday Times bestselling historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette and her sister, Maria Carolina. Kate’s novels, novellas, short stories and games have won or been shortlisted for several major awards, including three Nebula nominations in the novella and game writing categories. Her debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, won Canada’s Aurora Award. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.