Reading list for the Embroidered Book

This isn’t a complete bibliography of every work I consulted during the writing of my novel from 2015-2021, but it’s a tour through the main ones.

The biggest caveat to pass along is that I have never yet found a non-fiction book in English that treats the Chevalière d’Eon with basic respect and an informed understanding of sex and gender. This doesn’t mean such a book doesn’t exist, but if it does, I couldn’t find it. I did read quite a lot on the topic, but ended up using the bare, known facts to inform the character in my novel, in particular the fact that she declared herself a woman halfway through her life and was quite firm on that fact. As far as I can tell, the historical insistence on “it’s complicated” when it comes to her gender derives not from d’Eon’s own identity but from the unwillingness of historians to take her at her word. I could be wrong about this, of course, but the reason I mention it here is to explain that I don’t know of any book I can recommend on that subject without reservation, so I’ve left those books off the list.

I’m also not listing most of the contemporary sources I read online through the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg or other sites. These include Lafayette’s letters, Fersen’s letters, Elisable Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs, and Madame Campan’s very useful memoirs of life at Versailles. What follows is just the books I own myself, because, well, I had to stop somewhere…

And as usual, all mistakes and omissions are mine alone.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Frasier. This one is my bible. Very well-thumbed! In fact, it was reading this biography in 2015 that gave me the spark of the idea for The Embroidered Book. She mentions that Antoine and Charlotte had to be separated as children because they kept getting into trouble. So I naturally wondered what sort of trouble it might have been. This biography is an excellent read and very reliable.

A Sister of Marie-Antoinette: The Life Story of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples by Mrs. Bearne. Literally the only dedicated biography in English I could find of the de facto ruler of the kingdom of Naples in the latter 18th century! I know nothing about the author, Catherine Mary Bearne, except that she seems to have died in 1923. It’s not what you might call a rigorous biography, skipping over long periods and mostly just relating anecdotes. But it was a good starting place.

The better source was Maria Carolina’s own diary, in translation by Cinzia Recca. This edition cost me a fortune but it was worth it. Unfortunately, the only part of her diary that survives is from 1781-1785, although she kept a diary for much longer. There are secret symbols and abbreviations!

In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk was a source for information about Charlotte and Antoinette, but was most useful to me when looking up quick facts about their brothers Leopold and Joseph. Also a good source of information about their sister Amalia, who doesn’t appear much in The Embroidered Book but by golly, if I could have made this book twice as long, it would have been about three sisters rather than two, and Amalia would have been the third. She was quite the character (and was close to Charlotte and Antoinette.)

Maria Theresa: Biography of a Monarch by Elfriede Iby. This little bio of the protagonists’ formidable mother was a useful quick reference. Maria Theresa’s own life story is key to the plot.

The Bourbons of Naples: 1734 to 1825 by Harold Acton (who seems to be no close relation to John Acton, the prime minister of Naples.) This one was extremely useful for information about Charlotte, especially on the statecraft side of things. Yes, that’s a coffee ring on it. Sorry.

Goethe’s Italian Journey was useful as a description of what a traveller to Naples would have seen in the 1780s.

Sir William Hamilton: Envoy Extraordinary by Brian Fothergill is a book I bought well into the revision process, as Hamilton started out as a minor figure but grew with each new draft, until I realized I needed to find out more about him. He’s such an interesting cat. Plus, he had a monkey.

Another book I bought late in the process is Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, by Carolyn Harris, whom I used to work with on the occasional op-ed in my newspaper-editor days.

18th Century Embroidery Techniques, by Gail Marsh. Embroidery figures quite a lot in the novel, as it did in the lives of queens, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting anything too terribly wrong. I did learn to embroider myself as a kid, and some techniques are the same today, but some tools and materials are less familiar.

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber. Clothing is complex and fascinating (and always changing) in this period, and it is very likely I messed up somewhere, but if so, it’s not the fault of the books I consulted.

Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, is another useful one — big and glossy, with many illustrations.

Versailles: A Biography of a Palace by Tony Spawforth was a very useful addition to Madame Campan’s memoirs. The website of the current museum also helped me a great deal (and I was able to visit there in 2019.)

Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen and the Revolution by Will Bashor was my main source of information about the Autié brothers, who are a bit hard to pin down in the historical record. This book does a good job of unpicking all the evidence.

Godfather of the Revolution: The Life of Philippe Egalité, the Duc d’Orléans, by Tom Ambrose. An interesting biography of a man who was very much the hero of his own story, although not the hero of mine.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. I consulted a few books on the French Revolution writ large, but this one was the reference I used the most. It is roughly chronological, which is a godsend. (So much popular history is not written chronologically, and I understand why… but it’s so much more useful for my purposes when they are. And maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired. I actually dropped a Greek Civ course in university because all the thematic bouncing around, when I didn’t yet have a handle on the very basic definitional boundaries of the time and place we were talking about, drove me up the wall.)

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage was absolutely fascinating. I could have told this entire story from the perspective of this automaton, who shows up in various places througout the period my novel covers. But I mostly limited myself to a single chapter early on.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution is a very solid biography of an important painter, and a good supplement to Le Brun’s memoirs, which I found online. And it’s a very compelling read.

And the final picture I’ll share is of Nelson: Brittania’s God of War, by Andrew Lambert, which was useful to me for the final chapters of the book (and fascinating in its own right.)

Finally, a couple of books without photos, because they’re on my Kindle, but they were major sources:

I Love You Madly: Marie Antoinette and Count Ferson: The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr. Very useful research into the encrypted letters and a solid analysis of the redacted bits.

The Black Mozart: The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, by Walter E. Smith. Another fascinating biography of one of my favourite characters in the book. A duellist and musical genius, as well as a soldier.

These are the main books, along with some other biographies of figures on the periphery of the story at the time (such as Catherine the Great), and contemporary philosophy (in particular, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hume). Mike Duncan’s biography of Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds, hadn’t come out yet when I was researching The Embroidered Book, but I’ve been listening to the audiobook since, and it’s great — my favourite book on Lafayette. And I should mention that Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast was invaluable to me (the series on the French Revolution, for this book.)

Happy reading!