Launch: Will Bashor’s The Bastard Prince of Versailles
INTERVIEW BY KEIRA MORGAN
The Bastard Prince of Versailles, Will Bashor’s first historical novel is set in the glittering and corrupt 17th-century French court of Louis XIV. Will is the award-winning writer of the non-fiction biographical histories, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie. He teaches at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a member of the Society for French Historical Studies. In his spare time, he reads memoirs and studies the lives of royals and their courtiers. He has also written for the Huffington Post, BBC History Magazine, CR Fashion Book, and Age of Revolutions.
This novel is a change from your previous non-fiction writing, Will. How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
The theme itself is universal in its exploration of atonement, self-sacrifice, and heroism and topical in dealing with the hypocrisy and subterfuge surrounding homosexuality.
The Bastard Prince of Versailles narrates the escapades of a misborn “prince”, Count Louis de Vermandois, during the reign of his father. He isn’t a “real” prince—even though his father is King Louis XIV. The illegitimate son of the king and his mistress, Louise de La Vallière, young Louis has been kept far from the court’s eyes until summoned to bid adieu to his mother. To atone for her guilt of becoming mistress to the king, she joins a convent, abandoning young Count Louis to an uncertain future. When the boy’s father, the character embodying hypocrisy, humiliates him for his role in a secret gay society, Count Louis struggles to redeem himself through heroism and self-sacrifice on the battlefield in his father’s army.
As an acclaimed historian, what attracted you to writing historical fiction?
Although I’ve written several works of historical nonfiction, I felt somewhat confined when trying to connect to the past on a more intimate level. My fascination with the Bourbon dynasty and its court, with its quirky inhabitants, made me want to weave the historical record with creative fiction. As an avid reader of French history, I discovered that not only did Louis XIV have mistresses and illegitimate children, but that one of his misborn sons had been almost forgotten in history. In fact, he was often missing in royal family trees—while his sister was included.
After extensive research, I found that Count Louis of Vermandois had been sexually abused at thirteen by his uncle’s gay lover and initiated into a secret same-sex confrérie the following year. Because Count Louis met his tragic death at the early age of sixteen, and I wanted to stay true to the historical record and social considerations of the period, I decided to keep the historical timeline intact. Therefore, I did not change Count Louis’ age to accommodate modern-day, Western standards and morals. Masculine sexual identity during the reign of Louis XIV was expressed through a sub-culture that tolerated same-sex relations and effeminate behavior at court, despite many prohibitions against them. Given this hypocrisy, bringing this forgotten young prince back to life was my major ambition and, in doing so, I found it best to switch genres to historical fiction.
Previously your focus was on 18th-century France. What made you choose the setting for this book?
I’ve always been passionate about the history of the long-ruling Bourbon dynasty and especially the court of Versailles in both 17th- and 18th-century France. My first books focused on the life of Marie Antoinette and her servants, and that led me to write about the 18th century. I concentrated on her hairdresser, Léonard, who created the yard-high pouf, after seeing a lock of the queen’s hair in a Parisian museum. I remembered reading about the executioner—with scissors in hand—on that chilly October morning in 1793, when he tied her hands behind her back and, roughly grasping her hair, cut off the iconic locks that Léonard had made so legendary.
What kind of research did you do for this story?
Because very little was known about Count Louis, I read the memoirs of various courtiers and the court historian, Saint-Simon. Letters have survived, too, written by Madame de Sévigné and Madame Elizabeth, Louis’ aunt, which helped piece together a timeline and provide background information. Also, I found historical family portraits to be a source of additional context for the story.
You have written both fiction and non-fiction. What is the best writing advice you have to share?
It’s okay to step away from your writing occasionally. A little writer’s block can give you time to reflect on what you’ve written and plan any changes you might want to make going forward. I’ve also found that it is sometimes a good idea to leave some parts that you are excited about writing until the next day so you will be motivated to return to it. And when I’m ready for a change, I might even write a scene that doesn’t come until later in the book.
What is the last great book you read?
Tolstoy’s War and Peace.