I can’t remember how I first discovered the Countess of Castiglione. It’s a little awkward, now that I’ve written a whole novel, called The Paris Wife, featuring her as a principal character. I do remember my interest in her first piqued because I stumbled across a photograph of her from the 1860s. Seated and wrapped in a black shawl, artfully slipping off her bared shoulder, she stared through a black frame, holding it like a mask over her face. The boldness of her gaze boring straight out of the photograph belied the enigmatic tone of the pose – while it should have been playful, there was something challenging about it. Her eye became symbolic, and I felt like she was daring me to judge her.
Of course, I wanted to learn more. I discovered she was a famed Italian beauty, mistress to Emperor Napoleon III, and a fanatic of photography. She spent vast sums of money at the Parisian studio of Monsieur Pierson, collaborating with the photographer many times. She adored posing in different costumes, often inspired by history or mythology. Many of her contemporaries viewed it as a strange vanity, but to her, it was a form of art. A vain one still, perhaps, but when one is chiefly known for one’s looks and scandalous connections, why not embrace it? I sought out further photos of her, and found my creative muse inspired by many of them: the countess dressed for a ball as the Queen of Hearts; scowling beneath an elaborate headdress as she clutched a knife in her hand; slinking away from a ballroom fire in all her elaborate finery. She often employed the technique of adding touches of colour to photographs, a specialty of Pierson’s studio, to highlight certain elements of her scenes, which made the fire all the more dramatic.
Fascinated by the countess, I knew I needed to write about her. There was just one problem – she wasn’t the narrative voice that kept speaking up in my head. That was someone different, a woman of a more ordinary background, yet with a shadowy past. A woman with an expertise in poisons, and she was quite insistent, for all that her personality in my mind was quieter and steadier than the countess’s. I’m not really sure where she came from, but she emerged from the creative storytelling part of my brain pretty much fully developed, and I knew she had to be the protagonist of my next book. And so I wondered if there was a way to combine the two women into one story.
As I continued to research the Countess of Castiglione, I learned more about several assassination attempts on Napoleon III by Italian nationalists. At this time, parts of Italy were occupied by Austria, and these nationalists wanted French support to oust the Austrians. Or at least a way to ensure France didn’t support Austria, and they reasoned the political chaos following the assassination of France’s ruler would keep them occupied at home.
All the pieces started to fit together for The Paris Wife, and I could hardly contain my excitement. I could work a poison plot into the real historical assassination attempts, combining the two women characters I so strongly wanted to write about. As I researched and plotted, and their fictional friendship developed in my mind, I found myself highlighting the differences in their lives. The countess was nobility, mingling with high-ranking members of the court, spending as much money as she desired on gowns and photography. Livia, as my poison-expert narrator came to be named, was of a humbler background, a daughter of a doctor, who’d married a diplomat. Unlike the countess’s, Livia’s hands would be callused from gardening and preparing herbs and tinctures.
And yet, they shared many similarities. Even though the countess had a title and the ear of the emperor, she hardly had any more power than Livia to control her fate. She’d been sent to Paris with explicit instructions to seduce the emperor and sway him to Italy’s cause – by her own cousin, the Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. It didn’t matter that she was married and had a young son. It’s not clear whether she had affection for the emperor at all. But in photographs, she could dictate everything, and become whoever she wanted. And she did. She found a way to leave her mark on the world, and make herself happy while doing it.
Being entirely fictional, it’s easier to assign power to Livia, but hers is the backroom, whispered secrets type of influence so commonly ascribed to women of the past. (And even sometimes the present). She has just as much medical knowledge as her doctor father, but no formal place to use it. She understands politics just as well as her diplomat husband, reads just as many books, yet is never invited to share her opinion at court in the way he does as a matter of course. Since this is normal for the 1850s, she doesn’t rail against such restrictions. They’re just the way things are.
And that became the kernel of my novel, the core theme that tied both women together. Under the veneer of Second Empire glamour, indulgent photography, and dark poison plots, they are two extraordinary women, carving places for themselves in the ways most available to women – through nuanced personal relationships and managing societal expectations of beauty and charm. One of the challenges of historical fiction is how to write strong, plucky, relatable heroines that still realistically fit into the mould of their times. I feel so fortunate that the historical events surrounding Napoleon III matched up so well to the complex characters I wanted to depict. And I got to incorporate some action, scheming, backstabbing, and elements of mystery, too! I hope I achieved my goal of being true to the era, but also creating a story to enjoyably escape into with The Paris Wife.
(c) Meghan Masterson
About The Paris Wife:
Paris, 1856. In a world ruled by men, one woman holds the fate of a nation in her hands.
When newly married Livia arrives in her husband’s grand, echoing mansion house in Paris, she longs to return to her home in Italy with its fragrant garden. A doctor’s daughter, her study of plants and poisons has always been her greatest obsession. But now she is the wife of a powerful diplomat and she has no use for her skills and knowledge. Except for the deadly nightshade she keeps hidden under her dress… For a dark secret is hidden in her past, and Livia knows that she must protect herself and the life growing inside her…
Livia feels isolated, but soon she befriends Elisabetta, Napoleon III’s glamorous and controversial mistress. And she finds herself caught up in an exciting whirlwind of masked balls and intrigue in French high society. But enemies lurk in the shadows, and one night an assassination attempt is made on Napoleon outside Elisabetta’s house. Then Livia’s husband is arrested for treason…
With danger surrounding them, Livia must fight with Elisabetta to save their country and the lives of those they love. But can she really trust her new friend? And with a baby to protect, how far is she prepared to go?
A totally gripping, richly imagined historical novel about the power held by women in a world run by men. Fans of Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton and Marie Benedict will be absolutely hooked from the very first page until the final, breathtaking conclusion.
Order your copy online here.