Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Will the Real François Please Stand Up?

I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of historical versus fictional characters lately (as you well know!) and a recent reading experience confirms my fears. I’ve begun reading a historical novel set at the same time period as the new book I’m working and featuring a cast of characters pulled directly from history. I’m only two chapters in, but the book’s depiction of François I is so caricatured and sensational, such an exaggeration of the historical accounts, I’m ready to throw the book across the room!

François was a notorious womanizer; in addition to his two consecutive royal mistresses, Françoise de Foix, the Duchesse de Châteaubriant, and Anne de Pisseleu, Madame d’Etampes, he surrounded himself with a “petite bande” of beautiful noblewomen whom he showered with gifts of fine clothing, jewels and other marks of royal affection. Yes, he probably had amorous liaisons with some of these women, and yes, he most likely frequented the “filles de joye” on the royal payroll as well, but despite his appetites he was far from the ribald lecher the novel portrays him to be. He strove to refashion the French court according to Italian examples, where the art of conversation and rules of courtoisie ruled supreme. A well-educated amateur of poetry and the plastic arts, he surrounded himself with beautiful women and beautiful things, establishing the French court for a time as the apex of culture and refinement among the courts of Europe.

I was concerned when I began reading that this novel would cover too much of the same ground to make mine worthwhile. Not to worry; my François will be quite a different fellow. There are only so many sources on the Renaissance king that one can consult; how can two authors read the same things and create such different characters? Yet I’m sure we would both be surprised if we could discover where the real François fit into the spectrum of our creations!

A writer’s fictionalization of a real character always risks conflicting with the reader’s pre-formed image of the historical person. In order not to alienate the reader, the author can’t deviate too far from the accepted norms established by historical accounts. The challenge is to alter the norms just enough to make the characters interesting, engaging and amenable to the plot.


Sheramy said...

Hahaha--Julianne, you and I are operating on similar wavelengths today. Check out my latest blogpost on the Real Vincent. And I totally know what you mean: I get quite grouchy at depictions of van Gogh that exaggerate his illness or make him out to be something he wasn't. Or hear me howl at things like the movie "Troy" that bastardize ancient Greek culture.

By the way, I love that Clouet portrait of Francois I. It rather says it all!

Julianne Douglas said...


Sometime I'd love to hear your take on Troy! It would be interesting to hear about it from someone who actually knows.

I'm set to go see "The Other Boleyn Girl." I get excited when they do period pieces, but usually wind up cringing by the end of the movie.

Catherine Delors said...

Hi Julianne and Sheramy. Did you see this piece by Antonia Fraser, also about historical accuracy? She compares "The Other Boleyn Girl" and Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette." It reminds me of another discussion on this blog about the ethics of historical fiction.


I have no doubt that your Francois will be true to life. Yes, he was a bit of a womanizer, but nothing out of the ordinary for a French King. At least he didn't send his discarded women to the executioner. And as a patron of the arts, I agree that he was outstanding.

Sheramy said...

That's a terrific article, Catherine, thanks for posting the link. I'll probably see Other Boleyn Girl, although I haven't read the book. I actually liked "Marie Antoinette" for the same reason I actually liked Oliver Stone's "Alexander": I felt like the choices made were artistically motivated, not out of ignorance of the subject.

"Troy" on the other hand (she shuddered). Brad Pitt's bod was the best thing about that movie (he ruined it when he spoke). The rest is only good for assigning mythology class to dissect!

Julianne Douglas said...


Thanks for the link! That was an interesting article. I have to admit that I didn't appreciate Coppola's movie at all (in fact, I fell asleep while watching it!) I didn't have an issue with the style, music, etc.; I just found the movie very slow and I couldn't connect with the characters. I certainly admire Fraser's ability to relinquish her book to another's vision, though.

As for Francois, it's a real hoot reading some older (circa 1900) historical novels about him. One of them had him using mirrors to spy on women bathing in a grotto in the Fontainbleau gardens; another actually described some sort of transparent wall in the appartement de bains through which he could watch unsupecting women frolic in the water. Reading these books, you'd think Francois was some sort of sex fiend who had nothing better to do than stalk women! I hope I'll be able to counter this image in my novel.

Julianne Douglas said...


Just as Brad Pitt made Troy worth seeing, watching Eric Bana will compensate for any historical inaccuracies in TOBG. He's the actor I always imagined playing the male lead in my novel, once it's been made into a screenplay. {s}

Sheramy said...

Great choice for your male lead. I approve!! He was in "Troy" too -- Hektor! Loved him in "Munich" also. He's very talented in addition to being eye candy. ;-)

Cozy aka Susan Flanders said...

I told you that I liked the blog! I just read the article with Antonia Fraser's thoughts on the two movies---The Other Boleyn Girl and Marie Antoinette. (I know Catherine Delors from World of Royalty--I saw her name and checked out the link.) I have to say I'm rather shocked. I'm glad she is confident--she should be. She's a phenomenal writer. Her mother was a phenomenal writer too. But, I read her book on Marie Antoinette and also saw Sofia's movie, and I came away thinking that the differences were amazing. Even if you add in the artistic lisense for Sophia and give her the benefit of the doubt, I felt the movie just left me hanging. There wasn't nearly enough meat at all. It seemed much too flighty. I wanted more, and I knew there was so much detail left out. I know the movie can never do the book justice, but I still think it could have been more well-rounded.

Just my little opinion.

Julianne Douglas said...


But what else could Fraser say? Even if she didn't agree 100%, it would only hurt both of them if she criticized the film. Authors and directors both gain readers/viewers through each other's work; unless the film adaptation is so horrible that the author would need to completely distance herself from it, it seems that supporting the film could only help in the long run. What a sticky situation it would be to be disappointed in the film adaptation of one's book.

I wonder what Philippa Gregory thinks of TOBG.

Have you read Elena Maria Vidal's book on M.A.? Though I haven't read the book, I do read Vidal's blog, and I tend to view M.A. more in the light she does. I'm curious to know what other people think of her more forgiving image of the queen. (And I must admit that I don't know a lot about M.A., so my opinion isn't worth much!)

Thanks for joining us here! I hope you'll check back often.

Cozy aka Susan Flanders said...

Its true, she has to stand behind the movie. I guess what I wonder is...What does she really think? I do love her writing...right now I'm reading her book, Love and Louis XIV. It's excellent.

I havent read MA by E M Vidal, but I've read Fraser's and S. Zweig's biographies. I've seen her Tea at Trianon blog, but I havent really followed her. I'll have to check her out, though.