An interview of Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CHALICE

As I read THE CHALICE, my friend Nancy Bilyeau’s new novel in the Joanna Stafford series, I found that I couldn’t put it down until I was done with it. Nancy kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the readers of Versailles and More.


The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

Just when I thought that Tudor fiction had been written to death, I came across THE CHALICE. What is novel about it, no pun intended, is the focus, not on Henry VIII, nor his ill-fated queens, nor Cromwell, nor any other major figure, but on ordinary people. You made me realize how terrifying, how deeply disorienting, it must have been for Henry’s subjects to go through the religious upheavals of his reign. And then your heroine is a devout Catholic nun, Sister Joanna, while usually the era is seen from an Anglican or Protestant standpoint. What drove you to this perspective?

I decided that since I love the Tudor period and I am also a devotee of the mystery genre, I would write a Tudor thriller. But I didn’t want to write a real-life historical personage as the main character, and if you want to write a novel in which mysteries are solved, there are obstacles. There was no police as we know it in the 16th century. You had in positions of authority sheriffs and coroners and unpaid constables–and I make use of that in my series–and there were night watchmen. But you certainly didn’t have the use of forensics or ability to investigate a murder as we understand it now. So I thought I would create a different sort of story–more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery–and a different sort of protagonist, too, someone who is thrown into the middle of important times, and I came up with a nun. After I researched the backgrounds and perspectives of nuns and monks and friars in the Tudor age, I came to far different conclusions than most novelists do about the Reformation. The monastic orders played an important role in society. I formed a deep sympathy for the nuns, in particular. It distresses me, the anti-Catholic prejudice that began in the 1530s and has raged on ever since in England. Hilary Mantel says Catholicism is not a religion for respectable people? I disagree with her, of course, and yet you can see why she would be the perfect writer for Thomas Cromwell’s story, if that is how she feels.

 While reading THE CHALICE, I got a strong sense of being thrown into Tudor times. One recognizes, of course, the major historical events and characters. But which parts of the story, which characters are fictional? Were prophecy and necromancy, which are crucial to the plot, part of the political scene? (more…)

Hydrangea Redoute

Hydrangeas, Queen Hortense, the Hortensia Diamond

Hortense de Beauharnais Girodet

My thanks go to Felio, a reader of this blog, who is a florist by trade and gave me the idea of flower-themed posts. The first that came to mind were hydrangeas, because my paternal grandmother, gardener extraordinaire, used to grow them in the mountains of Auvergne.

Hydrangea by Redoute

Needless to say, they are not hardy enough to resist that harsh climate, but my grandmother was not the sort of person to let such details stand in the way of her gardening wishes (more…)


Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Regency England and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun: self-portrait

Frequent visitors to Versailles and more have become familiar with Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, one of the most successful painters of her time and Marie-Antoinette’s favorite portraitist. Madame Lebrun left France as early as October 1789, after the royal family relocated, much against their wishes, to the Tuileries. She traveled extensively in search of new patrons, in Italy, Germany and Russia, where she found what she calls herself une seconde patrie, a second homeland (more…)


The Salon of the Grand Couvert at Versailles: the room where Marie-Antoinette did not have dinner

Another Versailles update: the Salon of the Grand Couvert has been restored to its past splendor, as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the entire palace.

Versailles, the Salon du Grand Couvert, by Didier Rykner

The Salon of the Grand Couvert is part of the Queen’s Grand Apartment. Couvert means place setting in French, and this is the room where the royal couple had dinner. The King and Queen sat on armchairs, facing the audience. Duchesses had the privilege of sitting on a row of stools arranged in a semi-circle a few feet in front of the table. Further away stoo the rest of the courtiers and the public, for anyone decently dressed was admitted to the palace.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette during the very last years of the Ancien Régime, attended these occasions (more…)

Marie Antoinette a la rose by Vigee Lebrun

Marie-Antoinette and Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: the Queen and the painter

Without Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, our mental image of the Queen would be different, so iconic have these paintings become. All the more reason to look into the relationship between the two ladies. And what better way to do so than return to Madame Lebrun’s Memoirs?

It was in the year 1779, she writes, that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty [she was twenty four]. Marie-Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best gait of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that marked her as the Queen in the midst of her whole Court, her majestic mien (more…)

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Marie Antoinette’s unsung legacy to French food: the croissant

If you watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you know that the Queen liked to be surrounded by pyramids of gorgeous pastries and followed a strict macaroon-and-champagne diet. Or did she?

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Well, according to contemporary accounts, not at all. The etiquette required the King and Queen to take some of their meals in public, in front of the courtiers and visitors. Anyone decently dressed was admitted in Versailles, and many came to the Palace to watch the royal couple eat.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, attended those occasions. She notes in her Memoirs that “the King ate with a hearty appetite, but the Queen did not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin, in which she was very ill-advised.”

Marie Antoinette porcelain cup

Marie-Antoinette literally did not touch her food (more…)

18th century court gown

18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette

I saw the Court Pomp and Royal Ceremony exhibition at Versailles on its closing day last June and would have hated to miss it. My expectations were very high, and yet I could not help being somewhat disappointed, not by the quality of the objects on display, which were magnificent, but by their scarcity. I should have known better, of course: how many 18th century court costumes could have survived till the 21st century?

Interestingly, the few that did have been preserved in the royal collections of northern Europe, for instance the coronation gown(below) of Queen Sofia Magdelena of Sweden. It was made in Paris of silver cloth, and consists, like all French court gowns, in three separate pieces: bodice, skirt and train. Indeed in the course of the 18th century all European courts had adopted the Versailles court costume. Note the width of the panniers: 3 meters (12 feet!) The depth is no more than 2 feet, which gives the gown the shape of a very elongated ova (more…)