Eva Stachniak, author of The School of Mirrors and several other historical novels, shares the inspiration behind her latest novel which is set in 18th century France. In Eva’s words, the story “was inspired by #metoo movement and illuminates two distinctly different paths available to women in 18th century France, being a toy in the hands of powerful men or having a profession that sustained them such as midwifery.”
When I was growing up, in post-World War II Poland, history was all around me, lodged in the war ruins I passed by and in daily conversations of adults. History was the reason Poland was under the Soviet dominance, cut off from the West. History was behind my family’s migration to Wrocław, the city where I was born. Nothing, I heard, could be explained, or understood without reference to the past.
I have left Poland for Canada where I settled, raised my own family, and became a writer but I have not lost the conviction of the importance of history. Every novel I have written has its origin in the belief that the past illuminates the present, that it reveals something precious and universal about what it means to be human.
My latest novel, The School of Mirrors (2022) is no different. It began when, reading the memoirs of madame du Hausset, lady’s maid to Madame de Pompadour, the royal mistress of Louis XV, I came across the following scene at the court of Versailles. Madame de Pompadour, in the King’s presence, orders her maid to take care of a young, pregnant girl. Once the baby is born, du Hausset is told, she must take it away from the mother, have it baptized, and give it to a wet nurse. The errand demands utmost discretion. When du Hausset asks who the father of the child is, Madame de Pompadour answers, with a telling look at the king, “The most beloved man in France.”
“Does the young lady know that?”, the maid asks.
“No, unless someone has told her, seeing how the king appeared to be fond of her,” Pompadour replies, “Otherwise this young lady and all the others are told that their benefactor is a Polish count, a cousin to the queen.”
If, in this eighteenth century passage, you hear a reference to what we would now call sex-trafficking of very young women, grooming them for the king’s sexual pleasure, you are not mistaken. It didn’t take me long to learn about the existence of Deer Park, a secret house in the town of Versailles where very young royal mistresses (most not much older than 13) were kept. The girls—beautiful, yes, but also docile and “unspoilt”— were not told of the identity of their “benefactor” or what was expected of them. If they became pregnant, their children were taken away from them, raised by adoptive parents at the palace’s expense, and never told about their true identity. Boys were apprenticed to a tradesman or joined the army. Girls were encouraged to become nuns or, if they were not inclined to do so, provided with a dowry, and married off.
It would be easy to dismiss Deer Park as an example of the eighteenth-century excesses if it weren’t for the revelations of the #metoo movement and the growing scrutiny of contemporary sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein and his team of enablers. Over 200 years may have passed since that conversation between madame de Pompadour and her servant, but the sexual exploitation of the powerless has not vanished, or even changed very much. In spite of the great social progress we have made since, we have not eliminated sexual abuse of the powerless or the psychological damage such sexual exploitation leaves in its wake.
The voice of Veronique Roux from The School of Mirrors could well be the voice of the young women lured to Epstein’s world of private islands, powerful men, and opulence:
My mother didn’t tell me much.
I would have to go into service, she said. It is not what my late father or she had once hoped for me, but it is how it would have to be. I might still do well for myself, if I learn fast, that is, and if I learn to please. At all times, not only when it suits me, willful girl that I am, eager to listen to everyone but my own flesh and blood.
Should I have guessed what bargain she had struck for me? Perhaps, but I was still a child, even if I had turned thirteen already. I didn’t know how to spot danger in the silence between words. I didn’t know the sequence of steps in the dance of sacrifice and betrayal.
The School of Mirrors, however, is not only Veronique’s story. It is also the story of her illegitimate child, Marie-Louise, who discovers the truth of her birth at the time when France is plunged into the revolutionary fervour. Her fate in the novel may not resemble her mother’s, but it still has its own historical context, the lives of midwives in the eighteenth-century Paris. As I found out from historical sources, certified midwives were truly professional women already then. They were well-educated, respected, and able to shape their lives as well as the lives of women they came in touch with. Among them, Marie-Louise can have a life her mother could have only dreamed of.
The School of Mirrors is a novel in which—like in my Polish childhood— big history is a powerful background of ordinary lives. Monarchy falls, a revolution overturns the social order, while my heroines cope the best they can, falling in and out of love, giving birth and raising children, keeping and revealing secrets, burying and remembering their dead. They do it with courage and quiet fortitude. Their lives illuminate ours, for, to quote one of the novel’s reviewers The School of Mirrors is “a reminder that women — even when silenced and hidden — have always been brave, powerful and important parts of history.” (Bookreporter)
To learn more about the Parisian midwives who inspired my novel check my interview with Nina Rattner Gelbart: on Madame du Coudray
Many thanks, Eva. Powerful messages from the past that help us understand the present.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading The School of Mirrors. It’s an enthralling story of the powerful and the powerless – in this case the powerless include women as well as the masses who rise up against the king. Eva Stachniak’s superb writing and compelling characters will keep you reading late into the night.
The School of Mirrors by Eva Stachniak ~~ A lush, engrossing tale of love, deception and scandal in the 18th century French court of King Louis XV. Against the tumult of 18th century France, King Louis XV has tired of courtly intrigues and becomes a connoisseur of innocence. On the grounds of the Palace of Versailles lies Deer Park, a hunting ground that also offers another pleasure: a mansion where his young mistresses are housed. But when these girls first arrive at Deer Park, it is under the guise of a different role. They are promised employment in the household of a count, and, eager to improve their stations, they leave their families to serve him. Veronique is one such girl. She is introduced to “the count,” and young and naive as she is, she never doubts his identity. And as he begins to bestow affection on her, she quickly becomes consumed with love for him. It is too late when she realizes who he really is, the stakes of their affair and what she will have to give up to survive. In vivid detail and with a breathless pace, Eva Stachniak captures the story of a fast-changing France, where the once beloved Louis XV is losing ground, his grandson the Dauphin Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are sickening the country with their opulence and the French Revolution is stirring. It is in this France that Veronique”s young daughter, Marie-Louise, will grow up searching for answers about her birth. With stirring insight and dazzling intrigue, this novel questions the true meaning of legacy.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.