21 April, 2009

Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland. Book review

As can be deduced from the title, Mistress of the Sun is set at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in seventeenth-century France. It centres on Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis’ early mistresses, telling her story from early childhood to death. All the main characters are historical figures.

In 1650, in a rural backwater in central France, six-year-old Louise de la Valliere is entranced by Diablo, a wild white stallion owned by a group of travelling Roma (gypsies). Desperate to tame him, she resorts to a forbidden magical ritual and pays a heavy price. Years later, as a young lady-in-waiting at the glittering royal court, she falls in love again, this time with the King. But as her love for Louis blossoms, Louise finds herself under threat, both from her own fear of the possible consequences of her long-ago dabbling in magic and from a beautiful rival who is as desperate to claim Louis for herself as Louise once was to tame Diablo.

Mistress of the Sun is written in a leisurely style and portrays an enormous wealth of historical detail about seventeenth-century France in general and the Sun King’s court in particular. It captures both the absurd extravagances of the court (How many servants and ladies-in-waiting can it possibly take to help a princess get dressed in the morning?) and the squalor underlying the luxury. If you love the minutiae of high life in the past, with details of entertainments, dances, music, masques, clothes, buildings, riding, hunting, food, palace hierarchy and the subterfuges and romantic intrigues of the court, this is the book for you. Be warned, the detailed descriptions extend to all aspects of court life, and you may learn rather more about seventeenth-century (in)sanitary arrangements than you really wanted to know.

Beliefs in religion, magic and superstition play important roles in the novel. I am not keen on historical fantasy (as regular readers will know), and the heavy concentration on magic ritual in the first few chapters came close to putting me off. However, there’s no doubt that people at the time did believe in black magic, and the author leaves it open for the reader to decide whether to believe in it along with the characters. Louise’s struggles with her conscience over her illicit love for the King are believable, as is her eventual solution. Louis’ gradual change from an attractive and sympathetic youth into a selfish absolute monarch insensitive to anything but his own desires is also convincingly charted.

All the wars and most of the politics take place off-stage. The focus of the novel is Louise’s emotions and her relationships, with her confessor, her friends, her family, her beloved horse and her rival Athenais (the Marquise de Montespan), as well as with Louis. Indeed, despite the title, the relationship between Louis and Louise doesn’t even make an appearance until a third of the way into the book and even then takes a while to get going. Readers for whom Louise’s role as royal mistress is their primary interest should be prepared for a slow start.

At times I felt Louise was too sweet to be true. Her confessor describes her as having “a purity of soul that cannot be sullied”; I wondered at her naivety. She can also be seen as rather inclined to lie down and let people walk all over her. To be fair, this reflects the reality of her situation and the limited choices open to a woman in her position, as well as her inclination to be kind to others wherever possible, but readers looking for a heroine who controls events may find Louise’s gentle passivity frustrating. I do wish she was not referred to as “Petite” throughout the novel; for all I know it might well be her historically attested nickname but I found it excessively cute. And her first meeting with Louis, riding like a young Diana and mistaking him for a poacher, is so sweetly romantic that I hope it’s historically documented. Nevertheless, Louise rarely whines or descends into self-pity (although she had reason to on occasion), and I can think of more reprehensible goals in life than trying to make the people you love happy. I found myself growing to like her character as the novel progressed.

An epilogue wraps up the fates of most of the major characters, which is nice. I would have liked to know what happened to Clorine, Louise’s sensible and warm-hearted maid. I hope it was something good. A helpful Author’s Note at the end summarises the history underlying the novel, sets out the liberties taken, and explains which characters are real and which composites. Readers may also like to know that a glossary of period terms appears at the end of the book, although most of them can be worked out from context.

Detailed portrait of Louise de la Valliere and the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.


Rick said...

I have an old biography of her called La Petite, so it must have been an established nickname. The impression I got from that book was also that de la Valliere was rather sweet and naive for a maitresse en titre. Perhaps that is why the author picked her, as more appealing to modern readers than either Athenais de Montespan or 'the widow Scarron,' Mme de Maintenon.

Versailles is notorious for poor sanitation, but I wonder how bad it really was. Medieval sanitation gets a bad rap, but on the other hand I do get the impression that things went downhill in the early modern era.

Carla said...

Sweet and naive seems a fair description, at least as she appears in the novel. I'm interested as to why you say that would make her especially appealing to modern readers. I had a vague idea that 'powerful women' and 'kick ass heroines' were supposed to be fashionable, so if asked to guess who'd have the greater sales potential I'd probably have guessed Madame de Montespan. Sex and accusations of witchcraft, beauty and a ready wit - a sort of French Anne Boleyn, except for not getting executed.

Rick said...

Perhaps Athenais was powerful and kick ass in the wrong way for the modern audience? She did not challenge gender roles; she just used them to her advantage.

I'm gonna talk myself into trouble here, but perhaps contemporary mores still disapprove of mistresses - royal homewreckers, after all. Anne Boleyn gets a pass because she already paid her price, the ax elevating her from b!tch to victim, plus it doesn't hurt that her daughter was the gods' comeuppance to Henry VIII.

By comparison, Montespan's fall was squalid, not tragic, while Valliere was a reluctant Bad Girl who IIRC ends up as a nun.

Carla said...

You may have a point there; I've seen a few commenters on forums state that they dislike adultery in novels. Athenais was married herself, too, so that makes her unfaithful to her husband into the bargain, whereas Anne Boleyn and Louise weren't married to anyone else. Female infidelity can be more disapproved of than the male variety. This was so at the time, wasn't it? - I seem to vaguely recall that an official mistress was okay as long as she herself was unmarried.

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds like a novel I'd really enjoy - thanks for the review, Carla!

Rick said...

Oddly enough, the custom in France, at least at some periods, was that royal mistresses should be married, so that le roi wouldn't be 'ruining' an unmarried girl. (But compare to Henry VIII, who took up with unmarried Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn, and found hubbies for them when he dumped them.)

I think you're right about modern readers and adultery - they don't like it, so it is problematic to have a protagonist who is not only homewrecking on the queen but cheating on a hubby to boot.

Carla said...

Alianore - you're welcome!

Rick - that's interesting. I'm not familiar with royal (im)morality standards in France. My comment was based on a character's observation somewhere in Mistress of the Sun that mistresses were acceptable provided they themselves were unmarried. I can see the (sort of) logic in that, just as I can see the (sort of) logic in insisting that a mistress be married. I suppose a widow would conveniently square both circles, having neither a husband to cuckold nor a maidenhead to lose? I daresay the custom tended to be shaped to reflect the king's current fancy, rather than the other way around :-)

Rick said...

I suspect you're right, and the king's preferences mattered most!

But there might also be practical considerations - is it easier to buy off a girl's parents or her husband? And different or changing standards of what is deliciously naughty versus disgusting and gross.