I knew and admired Eva Stachniak in a private group of online novelists. Both Eva and I write fiction set in the past, novels that amplify the voices of those who have been ignored or forgotten, especially women and children. Eva’s new novel, school of mirrors, restores the voices of destitute young girls sent to Versailles in the 18th century to train as courtesans of Louis XV. My latest novel The exiled, tells the little-known story of convict women sent to Australia in the 19th century and the Aboriginal people whose lives were displaced. Recently, Eva and I had the following conversation about history, facts, truth, interpretation, and how our writings about the past inform and comment on the present.
CBK: We both write fictions set in the past that reflect, illuminate or comment on life today. How did you come to write about the past and what does your writing say about the world we live in today?
ES: I was born in Poland and the women who raised me kept talking about the great historical upheavals they experienced. As a child, I quickly calculated: to be a grandmother, I have to live through two world wars, to be a mother, a world war and a Nazi occupation.
I have never forgotten that I was raised in what historian Timothy Snyder aptly called “the bloody lands of Europe”: the killing fields of Hitler and Stalin. How can I? The ruins of war were around me. Everyone I knew talked about loss and displacement. The borders had shifted. Part of Poland became Soviet Russia, part of Germany became Poland. All of this irrevocably shaped my parents’ lives and mine.
History, to me, is not the past which can be easily forgotten or dismissed. History affects the present.
History, to me, is not the past which can be easily forgotten or dismissed. History affects the present. I saw how national narratives feed on history, how they are used to wage wars or demand sacrifices. In the most recent example, Vladimir Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine with a ninth-century history of Kievan Rus, a medieval empire founded by the Vikings, saying it proved Russian and Ukrainian unity.
CBK: I imagine that the current situation in Ukraine brings back many memories for you.
ES: Yes. In the summer of 1981, at the height of the Solidarity movement, I left for my higher education in Canada, driven by fear of what seemed to be an imminent Soviet invasion. There was no invasion, just martial law and brutal political repression, but when I look at the images of Ukrainian refugees queuing at the Polish border, I remember my first months in Canada. I know what it means to be cut off from your family, uncertain about the future. I also know how important it is to be offered a helping hand and to feel welcome.
Other thoughts also come. After every war, someone has to clean up / Things won’t get better, after all, writes the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. I have known from my own childhood how much this cleansing will rest on the shoulders of women.
“Cry when necessary. So get up and go,” my mom would have said to those thoughts. She knew that strength is contagious and that Ukrainian children who now cling to their mother in fear and tears will learn what she taught me. “Your first steps will be small…but necessary. Food, shelter, basic comforts. The rest will come, and you’ll be fine, because you have no other choice.
CBK: Women are at the center of our two recent books. The women of my novel The exiled are essentially powerless; they have no legal rights. But they find ways to connect with each other and even, from time to time, overcome injustice. It seemed like an important story to tell. Explain why you are drawn to women’s stories.
ES: Women have always been at the heart of every war, every revolution, uprising, siege. They may not have been allowed to vote or fight, their voices may not have been recorded, but their strength and sacrifices were crucial.
Women have always been at the heart of every war, every revolution, uprising, siege.
Like you, I tell their stories. The chosen girl is inspired by the life of Bronislava Nijinska, a brilliant dancer and choreographer who, despite the political upheavals she went through, created some of the best ballet of the 20th century. In school of mirrors, I spoke of the lives of the young women cared for for Louis XV at Versailles and the Parisian midwives caring for new mothers and babies in the midst of the French Revolution. Telling their stories is my way of rebalancing our perception of the past.
CBK: Young women may not be prepared for kings these days, at least not overtly, but they are certainly vulnerable to predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. Did this knowledge change, deepen or complicate the writing of the book for you?
ES: Thorough and complicated, yes.
When I came across the 18th century story of Deer Park – a secret house in Versailles where royal servants kept Louis XV’s teenage lovers – I took it for a stark example of the absolute and unchecked royal power that drove to the French Revolution.
The 18th century told the story of Deer Park in fairly mercantile terms. Yes, the girls were lured into the king’s bed with elaborate lies and sustained deceptions, but weren’t they well rewarded for their trouble? Think dots, think dresses, think jewelry! Their future was assured when so many others fared much worse. Nobody considered the psychological cost of these young women deceived, rejected, deprived of their children. They were lower class, complicit in their own loss, in their pain, in their very easily rejected humanity.
When details of the sexual abuse of Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein began to seep, amidst startlingly similar arguments used to discredit the victims, I heard something else. One by one, the women who testified against these once powerful men spoke about what made the abuse possible. There had been many catalysts. The victims had been carefully chosen and prepared. There had been a wall of silence and deception.
I returned to my 18th century story well armed.
CBK: Yes, it’s too easy to deny the humanity of others, whether they live today in boxes on the street or hidden in the pages of a history book. We write novels, in part, to bring hidden stories to life; to illuminate the experiences, hopes and dreams of the long forgotten.
ES: And in the process of re-examining and re-writing our perceptions of the past and present.
CBK: I like what you have to say about midwives mirror schools. One of the central characters of The exiled is a young midwife whose skills save her own life and the lives of the people she loves (among others). Midwives have been looked down upon – called witches and worse – throughout history, but the truth is that they knew more about medicine than many doctors. For example, midwives discovered that hand washing can prevent puerperal (or “childbirth”) fever, a deadly infection, but for many years the medical profession refused to believe it.
Midwives were my great discovery. Here they are, in 18th century France, these confident professional women, with a great sense of their social role and their mission. I started by reading everything I could find on Madame du Coudray, who was responsible for reforming the teaching of obstetrics in the French provinces. She invented a revolutionary educational tool, a mannequin on which midwifery students could practice their responses to complicated deliveries. What a contrast with the girls of Deer Park, presented as royal toys. What a different perspective.
The midwives took over the novel, at the end, and I was glad they did.
CBK: You have clearly done your research. I’m curious to know what you think of the distinction between history and fiction. Hilary Mantel says, “The facts are not the truth”, but “the record of what remains on record”. To what extent do you feel obligated to stick to the documented record?
As writers, we can question these archives, explore their context, complement them with our knowledge of human nature and how memory works.
ES: I agree with Hilary Mantel here. Each historical document preserved has been preceded by numerous drafts, long conversations “in the room where it happens”, of which nothing or very little has been said. As writers, we can start from there: question these archives, explore their context, complete them with our knowledge of human nature and how memory works.
But of course there are historical events. The Bastille was taken on July 14, 1789. Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793. I do not change these major events, but I bring historical moments to the reader. During the execution of the king, some people cry, some tell jokes, others eat meat pies. Others curse the snow, their boots leaking. Someone weaves through the crowd, someone else listens, eager to report whatever is being said.
Mantel is brilliant at it, isn’t he?
CBK: I’m a huge fan of the way Mantel brings history to life. She, too, usually sticks to the historical record. But she also sometimes bends the facts in the service of history. Do you?
ES: Can we even escape bending? History, like our memories, is rewritten with each story, is reshaped by the consciousness of each generation. We bend and frame historical facts to justify wars, exploitation, revenge. Or to evoke patriotic resistance, heroism and the will to survive.
Writers and poets too have done this for centuries.
I pick and choose the stories I tell, which in itself is an act of bending. I choose stories that reveal something fundamental to me, a 21st century woman of my experience and sensibility. I have no illusions that mine is the ultimate truth. Others will come with a different story.
CBK: How did living in this current moment – as a 21st century woman of your experience and sensibilities, as you put it – influence the writing of this novel?
I did my final edit of school of mirrors during the first year of the pandemic when I felt locked up, isolated and scared. It struck me how much more I share with my characters than I anticipated when life seemed orderly and calm.
I thought of Véronique locked away in Deer Park in an illusory world of opulence, unaware of the high price she would have to pay for her splendid isolation. I thought of his daughter, Marie-Louise, who lived through the angry, charged, deeply divided and politicized days of the French Revolution, the time of accusations and frenzied rhetoric oblivious to nuance.
I reflected on the unpredictability and precariousness of our fragile lives. About how everything we take for granted can be turned upside down and threatened in an instant.
Christina Baker Kline The exiled and that of Eva Stachniak school of mirrors are now available from William Morrow and Company.