The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

the sisters of versaillesBeware the Sisterhood…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When poor Louis XV of France began to tire of his ageing wife (she was nearly 30), he turned to one of the ladies of the court for comfort, Louise de Mailly-Nesle. Then to her sister, Pauline. Then to another of her sisters. Then another. This is a fictionalised account of the true story of the five Mailly-Nesle sisters, of whom four became the King’s mistress, and not always at different times…

First off, I have to say this isn’t at all my usual kind of reading. But I was offered a copy by the author just after I had reviewed a ‘proper’ history book about Marguerite de Valois, which had sparked my interest in the French court. Louis XV and the sisters are from a later period in history, the last gasp, as it turned out, of the “ancien régime”, while the road to revolution was being built. To my surprise, Sally Christie doesn’t seem to be an historian, though she describes herself as a life-long history buff. The surprise comes because this book is clearly as thoroughly researched as most histories I have read, and she shows a complete mastery of all aspects of the period, not just the manners of the aristocracy at the heart of the book, but making subtle reference as to what is happening outside the gilded cage of Versailles.

Louis XV by Maurice Quentin de la Tour
Louis XV by Maurice Quentin de la Tour

But, first and foremost, this is a comedy of manners, showing the jostling for power and position at the centre of Louis’ court, and the licentiousness and profligacy for which it was notorious. Christie shows us that for women in particular marriage and sex were their only route to security and social advancement, and marriage was often only a flimsy cover, a token nod to morality, in a court where adultery was the norm. Unlike the many queens of Henry VIII, the Mailly-Nesle sisters were not from a powerful family and so were not aiming at the throne itself. They had no male relatives looking out for them, their drunken father having drifted out of their lives many years earlier and anyway being too lowly to exert any influence. Their mother had been notorious in her time for her many affairs, and following her death the sisters had been split up and housed separately, two with an aunt, two in a convent, and the eldest already married off to an older man she didn’t really know, much less love. Their lives were drab and their dowries so small they were unlikely to achieve great marriages, so all ambition was centred on achieving a coveted place at Versailles. The first to get there was Louise, the eldest…

Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle by Alexis Grimou
Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle by Alexis Grimou

My interest in people sleeping around is minimal at best, so I was delighted that although the story stays focused throughout on the sisters’ affairs with Louis, Christie uses this to give a much wider picture of the personalities and life of the court. (And happily, despite the book being largely about sex, for the most part the reader is left firmly outside the bedroom door.) Christie doesn’t make any attempt to create a kind of faux ‘Ho, there! Fie upon you!’ language – her characters all speak with neutrally modern voices, and their emotions are quite recognisable too. But their manners and behaviour are set firmly within their own time. There are undoubtedly many anachronisms in the figures of speech, but after a bit I realised this works very well. Because, amongst all the acute observations of society and the sneaky bits of history, this is basically a tragi-comedy about five rival sisters, with all the family tensions and backbiting that go on in any fundamentally dysfunctional family.

Possibly Diane Adelaide de Mailly-Nesle by Marc Nattier
Possibly Diane Adelaide de Mailly-Nesle by Jean-Marc Nattier

And it is very funny indeed at points. The story is told all in first person narratives from the five sisters, so we get to know their personalities both from their own account and through the views of their siblings. The narrative is also intersected with letters between them all, which are some of the funniest bits of the book. Pauline, for example, stuck in a convent, desperately wants Louise to invite her to Versailles and tries every way she can think of to persuade her. Diane is frankly more interested in food than men, so in her sections and letters we get a very humorously written insight into the various dishes of the time and how they were prepared. Hortense likes to present a façade of piety (though one suspects she’s open to sin as much as the next sister, should the opportunity arise). And Louise likes to pretend that she and Louis are ‘just good friends’, even although the whole country knows what’s going on.

Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle (possibly) by Marc Nattier
Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle (possibly) by Jean-Marc Nattier

While all this humour makes it a hugely enjoyable read, Christie doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of life in this time. Death in childbirth is commonplace, and mistresses are expendable – their aim must be to consolidate their financial position before they are discarded when their looks begin to fade. The gossip-mongering and nastiness of the Court comes through strongly, as does the aristocratic disregard for the desperate poverty growing outside the walls. Christie uses her light touch to show how hated the mistresses are by the general populace, many of whom see the ongoing famines as God’s judgement on the King’s immorality – but the King, of course, cannot be criticised, unlike the women. There are parts that are dark indeed, making the book feel balanced and with plenty of depth underneath the gauzy surface.

Sally Christie
Sally Christie

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this walk outside my comfort zone – a tribute to the quality of Christie’s writing. It’s billed as the first of a trilogy on Versailles mistresses – I will most certainly be in the queue for the next one.

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

46 thoughts on “The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

  1. This really does sound interesting, FictionFan! It is so difficult to choose an effective writing style for a book like this. As you say, using the exact speech patterns and writing style of the times can be so cumbersome and stilted. But anachronism can also be annoying, and certainly doesn’t add to a story. It’s good to hear this one has the balance right. And I do like it when the author has made the effort to ‘do the homework.’ Like you, I’m not usually interested in reading about a lot of bedroom antics. It’s the implications, and as you say, the larger culture, that are more interesting. Good to hear you found this a good ‘un.

    • I enjoyed this so much more than I was expecting to, really – it took a little bit of time to get used to the modern language, but she did it so well that it added to the humour and certainly made the book an easier read. And she was very skilfull at getting all the bedroom stuff over without actually forcing us to witness it! I do like when I get tempted outside my usual comfort zone – when it works! 🙂

  2. I expect to see, as time progresses, the odd ‘Zut! Alors!’ creeping into the reviews, not to mention the typing of reviews being abandoned for liberal use of la plume de ma tante………..There is one crucial bit of information missing from your enjoyable review though – did Diane mention chocolate at all, or was she unfortunately living before the time for this essential. If so, what was her confectionary replacement?

    • Zut! Alors! is a bit too advanced for me – I never really got beyond Hawheehaw when speaking la Francais. Though at a stretch I can do a mean ‘Et voila!’

      Now, chocolate appeared hugely, especially in liquid form. But Diane’s favourite dish was the deliciously named ‘sugar pie’ – doesn’t that sound yumptiously Glaswegian? My one disappointment with the book was that she didn’t give us the recipe…

  3. This sounds absolutely bloody brilliant – my kind of book! Historical, naughtiness (without being explicit), humour and talk of food… I am already feeling desperately sorry for the sister stuck in a convent. It’s going on the list. But I must not buy it yet… no more distractions needed…

    • I do think you might love this! I thought it was going to be totally serious at first but the humour kind of snuck up on me – and poor Pauline in the convent was wonderful! What a bunch – they made me feel better about my own siblings… *rushes off before BigSister sees this*

      • I’m really looking forward to it, now. I don’t have sisters, but if I did I am sure I would send one to a convent. I am lucky my brother didn’t try that trick with me.

        • My brother would have cheerfully sent us all off if he’d thought of it. There is a certain attraction to convent life – regular meals, peace and quiet… But I suspect they might not let me hang a poster of Darcy on my wall.

      • Yes, it does rather put things in perspective! 🙂 Though given a straight choice between Versailles and a convent, I’d take the convent any day.

  4. Good to know you are adding at least two more to the TBR 😉 This does sound like good fun and I have decided as long as it isn’t ‘too’ modern, a more modern voice works better than trying to recreate the voice in the past – great that the author managed to blend her thorough research into a good romp (outside the bedroom door only) of a story!

    • Yes, but at least she hasn’t written them yet! 😉 I agree – I think a modern voice works better and makes the book easier to read. So long as they don’t use words like ‘amazeballs’ – and so long as the character’s attitudes aren’t all modern and politically correct. But these girls felt real for their time – good stuff!

  5. What a precise and interesting review of a book you clearly weren’t expecting to like but did very much. I appreciate your analysis and summary and am definitely going to add this to my TBR list. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  6. Now, see, the thing for the sisters to do was band together. You know, form a little regiment almost. And fight the king. It probably wouldn’t have been too hard to pop him off, you know…

    There’s something so spooky about that palace. I bet it’s haunted. And I think it’s cool she has two first names.

    • You’re right! If only BigSister and I had been there – she could have worked on strategy and I’d have trained them up on the use of peashooters! Though I might have got distracted by the pretty frocks… isn’t Louise’s hat splendid?!

      All palaces should be haunted – it should be the law. They all had incredibly long names – probably had more time to fill. What with modern technology and all, we don’t have time for hyphenated names any more… *sad face*

      • You could’ve had an army! Of course, you could’ve also paid me to take out the king. I’d have done that sort of thing back in those days. The hat is useless. Here’s why: Hats are supposed to cover the hair, not sit on top of it!

        We should investigate the ghosts then. See if they’re nice or mean. That’s why I took up a couple of names. A whole army to choose from, see.

        • Then you’d have become the head of the Revolution! (And have a French accent! *swoons*) And have had to fight a duel with Napoleon – no problems there, I feel. We’d make sure the sisters were all hovering around to distract him at the crucial moment…

          Oh, nonsense! You’re making the typical male mistake of assuming that hats are for keeping heads warm, when actually they exist only to add an extra dollop of prettiness to the female persona…

          I hope they’re mean – nice ghosts would be kinda dull. Yes, I admit Professor VJ Chicky-Woot-Woot Duke has a certain ring to it.

          • I can actually do a very bad French accent, I think. But I wouldn’t want to fight Napoleon. He was rather cool, don’t you think? Like Hector, only with boots.

            *laughs* I must admit, I was assuming that. A dollop. Well, for guys, it’s for warmness, of course.

            But mean ghosts get in one’s head, you know, you know. Doesn’t it? Definitely unique, I say.

            • Ooooh! la! la! You should play your guitar with a French accent… *faints* I had a major crush on Napoleon when I was a tot – he was one of my very first heroes. He has the most amazing (and amazingly ridiculous) tomb. I liked his hat…

              Of course! That’s because guys have more delicate brains that need to be carefully cossetted…

              But you could train them to haunt your enemies. When I’m Queen, I shall make you a Duke. Duke Duke. Sounds cool…

            • *laughs* Not sure how that’d be possible, but it sounds awesome. Really? What’s his tomb like? It’s probably a fake, I’m thinking.

              Unless you’re a professor. I don’t have a brain, see.

              I could? Cool! Let’s go get them then. People might laugh, tho.

            • It’s a massive big wooden thing on top of a massive big marble thing in a massive big circular room with galleries so you can view it from all round – in a massive big palace! So modest! It’s very impressive, but it does make me giggle a little…

              No heart and no brain?? I think we shall have to take you to visit the Wizard of Oz! (Why doesn’t your head deflate then? Do you keep a melon inside it just to maintain the shape?)

            • *laughs*

              Oh no! Now we’ll never be able to switch you off! I hope you’re solar-powered, ‘cos we’ll never be able to work out where to stick the recharger…

    • I’m the same – I know almost nothing about Versailles, but I think I should get to know more. This felt so well researched that I felt I was being educated as well as entertained – if you ever get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  7. Lovely when an “amateur” outperforms many professionals, isn’t it? Although I enjoyed your review, and it does sound intriguing, I’m not going to add it to my new TBR pile. The one that’s sitting on the boxed TBR pile….

    • Indeed! And I love feeling that I’m being educated and entertained at the same time! Oh, you’ll have plenty of room to add more once the shelves are up – you don’t want to end up with unsightly gaps…

  8. Ooh I’ve got this one to read – it sounds like I should be moving it up the TBR list. I wonder they didn’t all get horrible diseases if they were all bed-hopping all the time? I suppose, given their poor background, you have to admire their gumption in ending up somewhere they’ll be fed and have somewhere to sleep. I’m rather a fan of good books about courtesans too; at least they keep their independence and get to own some property, albeit jewellery and clothes. Great review as ever, FF.

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it – I did, even though it’s not at all the kind of thing I normally read. And I did kinda admire the sisters. although they were a bit horrible to each other. But they didn’t have many other opportunities to get out of their dreary lives. I requested the follow-up from NG – The Rivals of Versailles – but got declined. I think it was on for American readers only, but I was disappointed. I’ll definitely read it some time though…

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