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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Susanne Dunlap
* What was it about your protagonist, Marie d'Agoult, that compelled you to tell her story in your newly released novel LISZT'S KISS?
I’ve always been fascinated by Marie’s story. She was an incredibly intelligent, talented and passionate woman, but despite her later contributions to literature and culture writing under the pen name of Daniel Stern, she is usually remembered as Liszt’s mistress. And what she did, to leave her family and live with Liszt, must have taken such courage at the time. I’ve often wondered what must have been going through her mind before she actually met Liszt, to leave her open to such a drastic life decision. And I wondered, too, what an effect she might have on an impressionable young artist at the time.
* In your novel, how much of Marie d'Agoult’s life is fact and how much is fiction?
A great deal of Marie d’Agoult’s life in Liszt’s Kiss is fact, but one important aspect is fiction: she did not officially meet Franz Liszt until December of 1832. I took the liberty of collapsing some of the time frames in order to serve the story, but her apartment on the quai Malaquais, her children, her mother etc., and the episode with the Weber quartet are all true (although this last happened in December, not April). The sources I consulted were not very specific about the exact dates of her various trips and when she was physically in Paris during the cholera epidemic, so I made educated guesses about that.
And Marie did have a tragic, early love and consented to marry the first eligible man her parents presented to her, and she was a lady-in-waiting at the court of Charles X.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 19th century France, where LISZT'S KISS takes place.
Despite the revolution and all the Republican ideas ushered in during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were not legally or politically much better off than they had been before. The Napoleonic Code actually took away some women’s rights rather than granting them.
* Often, historical fiction writers will choose to tell the story of an extraordinary woman who defied the conventions of her time. In your chosen time period, what was the average woman’s life like?
That is always the most difficult thing to know in history. The average person’s life is rarely if ever recorded for posterity, and an average woman’s life is even harder to understand. The 19th century at least leaves us some diaries and letters, but again, these are more likely to have been written by extraordinary women. And again, what is average? Society was very stratified. In the working classes, women would be unlikely just to stay at home and take care of children if they could get work of any kind. The 19th century saw the enormous blossoming of the middle class, as industrialization and increased literacy created a whole new group of people with money to spend and time to spend it. 1832 was at the beginning of the era where every aspiring family would have a piano, and every daughter be made to learn how to play it as part of the courtship system where girls would display their femininity by singing and playing to captivate potential suitors. One of my favorite details about this rite of passage is that there were certain instruments considered acceptable for women to play. The piano, the harp, the guitar. No wind instruments, because a woman’s face would be distorted when she played it, and the violin was strictly the province of men, being associated with the devil. As for the cello—anything that made a girl spread her legs apart in front of the public was taboo.
* In what way did Marie d'Agoult break the mold for women of her time (19th century) and country (France)?
Although many married women had lovers that were an open secret, it was very unusual for a woman of high social standing to leave her family and actually live with a lover. Doing so meant that Marie had to give up custody of her children and was ostracized by just about everyone in her class. And when her affair with Liszt ended, even though they were not married, she had to give up the three children she had by him as well because the law favored fathers in every respect. France was not different from most of Europe, except in being perhaps a little more forgiving of transgressors like Marie. She was, after all, capable of having an illustrious career as a journalist and intellectual despite her checkered moral past.
* Who is one historical woman you would like to write a book on, but probably won’t?
That’s a tough one to answer. There are so many women in the musical world that would make wonderful subjects for books. I suppose I’d have to say either Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre or Maria Theresia von Paradis. Never heard of them? That’s one reason I probably won’t do it. They were both composers, Jacquet in the late 17th century at Louis XIV’s court, Paradis in Vienna in the second half of the 18th century. I just don’t know if I could unearth enough meaty information, or if their lives would be interesting enough to non-musicians in the end.
* What are you working on next, and who will be your protagonist?
I’m working on a novel loosely based on the life of Francesca Caccini, a composer at the Medici court in Florence in the early 17th century.
Thank you Susanne! And feel free to visit Sunanne Dunlap online for more information about her novels Emilie's Voice and Liszt's Kiss.