Nancy Goldstone’s enthusiasm for European history, particularly female royals, is infectious. “These people have been dead a long time; it’s okay to talk about them behind their backs,” she jokes. 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 Nov. 4).
The below interview took place via Zoom on Oct. 22 between Ivy Weston and Nancy Goldstone.
IW: Looking at your repertoire of books, your body of work seems to have a common theme about royals and royalty, so I’m just 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 and makes it much easier to understand.
And so, I knew two books ago that I was going to write about Maria Theresa. I was aiming for her because she was so courageous and such a remarkable woman. But I’m very glad I waited because by the time I got to her I also realized that it’s better to look at her daughters as well, so you can see how everything that happens in her time plays out afterwards.
And her daughters were a complete surprise to me. I knew Maria Theresa had a lot of children, and that Marie Antoinette was one of them, but I didn’t know Maria Theresa had 16 children in 20 years! She was just unbelievable. I also didn’t realize that Marie Antoinette had such really fabulous sisters. Marie Antoinette was the youngest, but the sister closest to her in age was Maria Carolina, who became Queen of Naples, and her life was even more exciting than Marie Antoinette’s. Maria Carolina not only had to fight the French Revolution, she also had to fight Napoleon, perhaps the greatest military genius of all time. Napoleon was the number one scourge of royals in that period--and Maria Carolina managed to defy him and get away with her head still attached. Another older sister, Maria Christina, who’s called Mimi, was Governor General of Belgium and Flanders, so she also had to fight the exact same revolution that Marie Antoinette did! We think “Oh, the French Revolution, it was just in France” but no, it spread out everywhere. So all of the sisters had to confront it. Actually, in some ways, Marie Antoinette was the least interesting member of her family.
IW: It is interesting, when you think about it, that back in those days, women really didn’t have power. Royal women were kind of an exception.
NG: Yes! 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, the only 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, all at once, from every side, 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] Boy were they sorry! I love her! She walloped them!
So that’s why I wanted to write about her. And then she ended up being this really terrific ruler. She read every paper that crossed her desk, she ran her own council, she made every decision, and she did all that, as I said, 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, like that [snaps her fingers]. She was amazing.
IW: That’s some energy.
NG: That’s multitasking! [laughs]
IW: I noticed from the bio on your website [https://nancygoldstone.com] that you were a history major in college. What made you interested in writing about royalty?
NG: I think they showed me “Camelot” at too young an age or something. I’ve just always loved anything about royalty and queens. How I got started was, years ago, I was reading a chronicle from the thirteenth century about these four daughters of the Count of Provence and how they all became queens - Queen of England, Queen of France, Queen of Germany, and Queen of Sicily 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. It was my first book on this subject, and it was called “Four Queens.” Because back then, when I started, people didn’t publish many books about women in history, even though women make up 50 percent of the population. So since then, I’ve kind of made a living writing about all the most powerful and remarkable women you’ve never heard of. [laughs]
IW: I love that! That’s definitely going in the article. That’s fantastic. I mean, it’s true, my husband was a history major also, and it’s 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. You’ve got some Christina Rosetti maybe, you have Mary Shelley, but aside from that, you’re mostly looking at old white guys. [Laughs] So yeah, women have been under represented throughout history, and I think, kudos for you for doing that.
NG: They say history was written by the winners, but it was also only written for centuries by 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: OK, I’m going to shift gears a little bit. You met your husband Larry, who’s also a writer [http://www.lawrencegoldstone.com] when you both were working on Wall Street.
NG: Yes. That was my first career.
IW: How did you both become authors?
NG: Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer, coming up through school. I just didn’t think it was possible to be a writer. 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.” It isn’t that people don’t want to work -- people want to work -- but maybe this is the time when your priorities get straightened out and you say, “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!” And he’s very talented so that’s what happened.
I can’t recommend it to everyone, you don’t make any money, it’s not a career where you will have safety. But when you are a writer, you can’t do anything about it. You have to write, you want to write, it’s the only thing that makes you happy. For me, writing a book is like being in a wonderful movie, and I get to play all the parts! There’s romance, and people are always escaping in long beautiful dresses with pearls in their hair, and they’re jumping on horses and fleeing the enemy at the last minute, and I get to be those people. I love it! And I think there are a lot of people who like to read about the past and women in power, women who’ve done things and had an effect on history.
IW: How do Larry’s books differ from yours?
NG: Larry has no patience with European royalty! [Laughs]. Larry writes about the history of the Supreme Court and equal rights. He has called every Supreme Court decision in advance. He really understands Court politics. His books are so important. He writes about the role of the Supreme Court, and how people made it impossible for Black people to vote during the Jim Crow years, and how many are trying to replicate that now and the strategies that they’re using. He just won an award for one of his books. Anyone who’s interested in politics or what’s happening in the Supreme Court should be reading his books. And he’s a wonderful writer, his writing is very compelling and easy to read. He does history as a story, as I do.
IW: Narrative nonfiction. That’s the way to do it. I look forward to meeting him as well at the luncheon. Our attendees will be excited he’s there too, I’m sure. So you recently moved to Del Mar from New York. What prompted the move, and how are you liking the San Diego area?
NG: It was the pandemic. Our daughter was getting married. In fact, we’d only come to the West Coast for the first time when we met her fiancé--his family is from out here. We were living on eastern Long Island and during the pandemic half of New York just spilled out to Long Island and it became very difficult to live there, it got so crowded. And we wanted to be closer to our daughter and her husband so we moved out here. And then, our son-in-law, who was a craft brewer in Carlsbad, got a job in Montana so now we’re here and they’re in Bozeman, Montana [laughs]! But his family and their friends are still here, so I suspect when it gets cold they’ll come back for visits, and anyway we’re still much closer to them than when we lived in New York.
Meanwhile, 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. There must be a big creative community here because I can feel it, 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 also, to show them that you’re reading. Besides, it’s wonderful to lose yourself in a book! You can go to the library, you don’t have to pay for it, there’s this huge assortment of fascinating ideas and places to go in your mind. It’s so much more fulfilling than just sitting around and watching the next Netflix installment.
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. That’s why libraries have been with us for such a long time. They are ancient, there was a library in Alexandria! And that’s why I am such a big supporter and am thrilled to be speaking at the Coronado Library.
IW: Well, thank you for speaking at Coronado’s! Is there anything that you’d like to add?
NG: Yes! I never get anything in the news because I’m writing about people who have been dead for 300-400 years. So, Marie Antoinette is in the news and it was in fact reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Oct. 1. 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, and what do they say? She says, “I adore you, I love you so.” These letters are proof that she had this affair. And there’s so much evidence. So I had already said in my book, and I thought it was a stated fact, that she had an affair with this guy and in fact her two youngest children are by him and not by the king. I will be talking all about that affair in my talk. That’s going to be fun.
IW: That’s going to be really juicy and I’m excited about that!