In our times Marie Antoinette would have been admired like Lady Diana

Mrs Craveri, in ‘Mistresses and Queens’ you have made a collection of portraits of the most famous queens and mistresses in the French court. In the epilogue you explain that this book was born from the articles you wrote for an Italian newspaper. Tell us more about the origin of the book. What made you write it?

I was asked by the Italian daily newspaper ‘La Repubblica’, where I have been contributing for many years in the culture section, to write a series of portraits of famous French women, which would be of interest for the wider audience and as recently there had been some interesting new biographies of French queens (for instance, two of them dedicated to Marie Antoinette – one by the English biographer Antonia Fraser and another one by the French historian Simone Bertiere) I decided to create a gallery of portraits of queens and mistresses and show how their stories are intertwined. The series of articles had a great success and as early as the end of that summer I received offers from three different publishers to put them together in a book. I accepted the offer of Adelphi, the publishing house I have always worked with and I was keenly aware of the difference between writing an article for a newspaper and writing a historical research.

There is a lot to learn from your book about the female predicament in the Middle Ages. Most of these ladies were at the same time pawns and factors in politics, arts, etc. Who are their equivalents today?

I don’t think there is any parallel because the historical context is completely different today. In France during the Old Regime as well as in the rest of Europe women obeyed the authority of men. They could not make their own decisions, regardless if it was about marriage or retreating to monastery, they could not manage their own property, let alone perform any public duties. Their political influence could not be any other but covert and it depended largely on their ability to seduce and manipulate men. Nowadays the situation is radically different and women have full civil rights. However, they still have to cope with centuries of discrimination and prejudice but we only have to think about Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel to appreciate how far we have reached.

Let’s take, for instance, Marie Antoinette, condemned in her times by the public opinion for not fulfilling her royal duty, for disrespect for social protocol and for wanting to lead her own private life within the court, following pretty much the modern trends just like any other young woman from the aristocracy at that time. Today she would have been admired and worshipped like the late princess Diana.

Why did you bring the queens and mistresses together into one discourse, under the same roof, so to speak? Why do you think they belong together rather than to two separate books?

Precisely because the queens and mistresses lived under the same roof – the Court – and they were fighting among each other for the reign in the heart of the monarch. However, the distance between them was huge. The queens had no say in their fate, their marriages were subject to the state’s interests and they would leave their countries very young, burning all bridges behind in order to learn the language, traditions and lifestyle of their royal husband and to provide an heir to the throne as soon as possible. In a country like France, where the Salic law excluded women as heirs to the throne, queens had no power at all, they entirely depended on the good will of their husbands and therefore their virtue had to remain intact. In difference to the queens, the royal mistresses were the makers of their own fate. In order to seduce the king it wasn’t enough for them to be pretty, glamourous, attractive. To beat the harsh competition, they also had to be intelligent, they had to earn the trust of their lover, become his confidantes, friends, consultants. But while even the most unpopular queens could not be ousted from the game, the mistresses lived in constant fear of losing the heart of the king and falling in disgrace or in case of the monarch’s death, they had to deal with the revenge of his widow or of their own cuckolded husband.

My personal favourite is the story of Madam de Maintenon. Do you have your own personal favourites among these characters?

My favourite is the story of Caterina Medici. Even if for centuries she lived with her dark legend, presenting her as a demon, as a figure, dedicated to black magic, the widow of Henry III was actually a great sovereign. Educated, peace-loving, tolerant, the queen from Florence ruled on behalf of her underage or incapacitated sons over France that was exhausted from the religious wars that lasted for thirty years. Deprived of the power necessary to impose her will over the Catholics and the Huguenots, Caterina did not shy away from using all possible methods, including diplomacy, corruption, violence, treason, with the sole purpose of keeping the unity of the kingdom unscathed and Henry IV Bourbon, who otherwise detested her, was the first one to admit that she had been a ‘great king’.

Mrs Craveri, you are a Professor in French Literature and your books are deeply embedded in French culture. They are also translated in many languages and enjoy great popularity around the world. What is your explanation of this deep and constant interest in French history?

It is because in the course of ХVII and ХVIII centuries the French society achieved a certain way of life that draw the admiration of Europe as a whole by establishing a model of communication that has not lost any of its glory to this day. And we are forever indebted to the great thinkers of ХVIII century – from Montesquieu to Voltaire and from Diderot to Rousseau – for the ideals of justice, tolerance, progress, equality, democracy that are the cornerstones of our modern society.

You published a new book this year about the last libertines in France. Tell us more about your latest work.

‘The Last Libertines’ tells the story of seven aristocrats, whose days of youth coincide with the last good days of the French monarchy, when the elite in general believed that it could combine its way of life, based on privilege and caste spirit together with the new ideals of justice, tolerance and civil society, foregrounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. I chose the duke of Lauzun, the count and viscount of Ségur, duke de Brissac, count de Narbonne, the knight of Boufflerse, and the count of Vaudreuil mainly because of the epic nature of their adventures and affairs but also for their crystal clear understanding of the crisis of the Old Regime, even if they were the name and face of it, that did not prevent them from being provident about the world that was about to be born. At the same time they were unsurpassable in the art of seduction, their numerous intimate conquests among the ladies did not impede them from understanding libertinism in a much wider sense. For this reason I called them ‘the last libertines’ even if all of them sooner or later actually met the woman who would bind them for life.

Traditionally, we always ask our authors what they know about Bulgaria. Have you been to Bulgaria before and what are your first associations with our country?

I have never been to Bulgaria but I have heard that it is a beautiful country and I very much look forward to seeing it soon.