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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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.