France on Friday
Destination: France in the 17th Century
Book: Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (Paperback released in May, 2009)
NOTE: Please check out Sandra Gulland’s response in the comment section, and further travel advice on her web site.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mistress of the Sun. Because:
- I’m planning my first trip to France, and I’ll be visiting Versailles.
- Sandra Gulland writes well researched historical novels.
- A moving romance dominates the story line.
Add to that, a well chosen heroine who in real life became the mistress of King Louis XIV, who would come down in history as The Sun King. At the beginning of their story, he was handsome young Louis and she was Petite. Both of them loved to ride. In fact, Louise de Valliere (Petite) attracted his attention more for her horsemanship– excelling most of the men at court–than for her feminine beauty. She even had one leg shorter than the other, and later in life wore a special shoe to equalize her gait.
Throughout their relationship, in this novel at least, Louise loved Louis, but did not care for The King, and we see the young Louis evolve from the carefree romantic young man to a demanding and self-absorbed adulthood, facing foreign enemies and internal schemers at the court.
Louise evolves less dramatically, and her changes seem to be foretold from her childhood. As a young girl she loves a wild white stallion known as Diablo, and with a combination of gypsy magic and horsewhispering, she tames him, but at a terrible price. The young Petite winds up living in a nunnery. When she gets a job at the court, Louis sees her and remembers her from an early encounter. She falls in an impossible love with Louis, but he reciprocates her love and takes her as one of the earliest of his many mistresses. He turns out to be as untameable as Diablo, and she ends her life back in the nunnery.
It is interesting that we see this spirited young girl become docile in love and then come to the conclusion that her only real freedom is to take the veil.
Because the records are incomplete, Gulland adds fictional touches (the creation of the character of Louise’s maid and the blending of several characters into one), but no one has accused her of historical inaccuracy. Her research shines through, but does not weigh down the fast-paced story and interesting characters.
She does not gloss over the sometimes repugnant details of 17th century life, telling us about illnesses, the rats and the filth in even grand palaces. Her description of everyday life in the palace makes me wonder why as a girl I ever wanted to be a princess.
Most fascinating to me, we see Versailles (called Versaile in the novel) morph from a rural hunting camp to a glamorous center of court life, more like what we see outside Paris today.
I intend to read this book again before I go to France, to fix real historic details that I skimmed over in my rush to read the fascinating story.
(The picture above is obtained from Flickr, and if you click on it, you will learn more about him. The publishers, Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint, gave me a hard-cover copy of this book to read.)
Have you read Gulland’s trilogy on Josephine Bonaparte? Or perhaps you beat me to Mistress to the Sun. What other historic novels do you recommend for a traveler to France?