Nancy Goldstone’s enthusiasm for European history, particularly female royals, is infectious. Although she writes about women who died centuries ago, Goldstone refers to them throughout our interview in the present tense because they are so real to her.
Goldstone, who lives in Del Mar, will appear at the Coronado Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 4, for a luncheon with fans and to discuss her most recent book, “In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters.” Tickets for this intimate author event, a fundraiser for the Friends of the Coronado Public Library, are still available through the Library’s events calendar at cplevents.org (click on November 4).
The below interview took place via Zoom on Oct. 22 between Ivy Weston and Nancy Goldstone.
IW: Your body of work has common theme of royals and royalty, so I’m curious about what made you interested in writing about Maria Theresa and her daughters.
NG: I’ve known I’ve wanted to write about Maria Theresa for a long time. Her story is so compelling, so exciting! But I waited because I’ve been researching women in power, and that means queens, for years now, working my way up from the 13th century onward, because I realized that it’s better to approach a subject chronologically. That way you know what they know, and only what they know. It puts the period in context. I’m glad I waited because by the time I got to her I realized that it’s better to look at her daughters as well.
And her daughters were a complete surprise to me. I didn’t realize that Marie Antoinette had such fabulous sisters. Marie Antoinette was the youngest, but the sister closest to her in age was Maria Carolina, who became Queen of Naples. Her life was even more exciting than Marie Antoinette’s. She not only had to fight the French Revolution, she also had to fight Napoleon, perhaps the greatest military genius of all time and the number one scourge of royals in that period. Maria Carolina managed to defy him and get away with her head still attached. In some ways, Marie Antoinette was the least interesting member of her family.
IW: It is interesting, when you think that back in those days, women really didn’t have power. Royal women were kind of an exception.
NG: In this case they were really an exception. Maria Theresa was 23 years old, pregnant, and completely untrained, when suddenly her father died, there were no male heirs, and she inherits all of his property, which includes Austria, Hungary, Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), Belgium, Flanders, the overlordship of all of Germany and large portions of Italy. She is the first woman ever to inherit and rule that amount of territory in her own right. And the immediate reaction of all the other European powers is to attack her, on the grounds that a woman was too weak to protect her own property or to rule. They figured they could just waltz in there and divvy up all her lands and subjects amongst themselves. Guess how that worked out? [laughs]
And she ended up being this really terrific ruler. She read every paper that crossed her desk, ran her own council, made every decision, all while having 16 children over 20 years. She would go right up to the moment of birth, at her desk. She’d get up, have the kid and be back there the next day.
IW: That’s some energy.
NG: That’s multitasking! [laughs]
IW: I noticed from the bio on your website that you were a history major in college. What made you interested in writing about royalty?
NG: I’ve always loved anything about royalty and queens. How I got started was, years ago I was reading a chronicle from the 13th Century about these four daughters of the Count of Provence and how they all became queens and I said “Wow, how cool is that?! All at the same time, all these sisters? I want to get a book on that!” So I looked around for a book and I realized that if I wanted to read about these women, I was going to have to write the book myself. So that’s what I did. Back then, when I started, people didn’t publish many books about women in history.
IW: It’s true. History is so male-dominated. And a lot of other academic fields too. I was an English major, and so much of what you read is by white males.
NG: They say history was written by the winners, but it was also written for centuries by only men! And men were just not that interested in what women did, so they missed a lot. That’s why there are so many mysteries. History just makes a whole lot more sense if you put the women back in.
IW: You met your husband Larry, who’s also a writer, when you both were working on Wall Street.
NG: Yes. That was my first career.
IW: How did you both become authors?
NG: I’d always wanted to be a writer, I just didn’t think it was possible. And then I met Larry and he said “You should go for your dreams. Quit your job and go and try” and he was right! I think a lot of that’s happening now because of the pandemic. People are reevaluating their lives and saying “this is my time. I would like to go after my dreams.” I am a person who, because I met this man and he encouraged me, became a writer. And then he saw me become a writer and said, “you know, I would rather do that too!”
IW: You recently moved to Del Mar from New York. How are you liking the San Diego area?
NG: We feel like we moved to paradise. The colors and the ocean and the cliffs, the beauty of the place, and the sun comes out so much! It’s just amazing. For me it’s very inspiring. I can go for a walk at the beach and all these ideas come into my head about what to write about. I can feel how creative it is out here.
IW: Your appearance at the Nov. 4 luncheon benefits the Friends of the Coronado Public Library, without whom there would be no budget for public programs. What is your take on the importance of libraries in the 21st Century and beyond?
NG: I think, especially with the pandemic, that you can see how important libraries and independent bookstores are. I know we’re in a social media age but still, your kids need to read, and you have to show them that you’re reading. Besides, it’s wonderful to lose yourself in a book! When I read a book, I go there. And when I write my books, I go there. When you watch a series or a movie, you’re looking at the filmmaker’s vision. When you read a book, you are the person who imagines and creates that world. It’s a very personal experience.
IW: Is there anything you’d like to add?
NG: Marie Antoinette is in the news! There’s been this long-running idea that she had an affair with a Swedish count named Axel Ferson. And in France, some scientists got some of her letters that had been censored so we couldn’t read what they said. They have new technology, and they X-rayed them. She says, “I adore you, I love you so.” These letters are proof that she had this affair. And there’s so much evidence. I had already said in my book, and I thought it was a stated fact, that she had the affair and her two youngest children are by him, not the king. I will be talking all about that affair in my talk. That’s going to be fun.