Thursday, June 11, 2015

Growing up royal: Chantal Thomas' The Exchange of Princesses

Best known for Farewell, My Queen (2003), an intimate glimpse of Marie Antoinette’s last days, Thomas has crafted a pointed and witty novel that sheds light on two eighteenth-century princesses trapped by familial obligations and the capricious whims of the court.

On January 9, 1722, two cortèges unload and swap their passengers at Pheasant Island, a neutral point in the Pyrenees region. To ally their quarrelsome countries, 12-year-old Louise Élisabeth of Orléans, one of the many neglected daughters of France’s regent, will marry the Spanish heir, Luis, while Luis’ half-sister, Mariana Victoria, an adorable three-year-old who clings to her dolls, is sent to France to wed the adolescent Louis XV. “Could a more perfect symmetry be imagined?” Thomas ironically observes.

Writing in a formal style, she highlights the absurdity of royal ceremonies and the cruel circumstances that abandon these girls to their fates and deny them anything resembling a real childhood. Excerpts from authentic, little-known letters and documents add to the reading experience. 

Chantal Thomas' The Exchange of Princesses, ably translated into English by John Cullen, will be published by Other Press in July ($16.95, trade pb, 336pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's June issue.

An additional note: I've read many novels about royalty (they're a special interest), so it's rare for me to pick up a work of royal fiction without knowing how it will end, but this particular episode was entirely new. If you haven't heard of it either, avoid Wikipedia before beginning!


  1. I've not heard of these princesses, but then my knowledge of French history is limited. Another novel for my wish list. Though tempted, I will heed your advice and stay away from Wikipedia!

    1. I'm not all that familiar with French history between the Sun King and the lead-up to the French Revolution. And the princesses are so young - it's an unusual subject for adult fiction, but the story worked very well. The author's archival research was impressive, too.

  2. This one does interest. Can you imagine giving a three year old daughter away? Yikes.
    Now I'm off to Wiki, because you mentioned it, and I must know. haha!

    1. I know... it depresses me.
      As for Wiki, I went there as soon as I finished. And was glad I did. :)

  3. Anonymous1:23 PM

    Royalty had to marry those of equal rank and religion, which after the Counterreformation was more difficult. Thus France (Bourbon) and Spain (Hapbsburg/Bourbon) and the Holy Roman Empire (Hapsburgs) kept intermarrying, which didn't help the gene pool. An interesting biography is Princesse of Versailles: the life of Marie-Adelaide of Savoy by Charles W. Elliott; Marie-Adelaide married a grandson of Louis XIV and was the mother of Louis XV. Her younger sister married the younger brother of that grandson who by then was on the throne of Spain (War of the Spanish Succession, one of the many during that time period).

    Sarah OL