The marriage of Monsieur Montespan and his wife, Francoise de Mortemart, was an accident, but at first a fortuitous one. Montespan’s brother, Francoise’s fiance, was killed in a duel, leaving him free to claim the beautiful lady. They begin their marriage deeply in love with one another and have children together. Francoise, however, starts to chafe at their poor lifestyle and the couple becomes mired in debt. To make up for it, Montespan heads off to a series of wars, while his wife enters the court, taking on the name “Athenais”. She is so beautiful, charming, and accomplished that she attracts the eye of legendary Louis XIV. What is a loving husband to do?
I’ve only recently become interested in the reign of Louis XIV; in high school, I had a history teacher who was fascinated by him, which led to a bit of an overdose. After I visited Versailles last October, though, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the man who had built the palace, the “Sun King”. As a result, I snapped this book up for review and have really been looking forward to reading it. I was particularly attracted by the fact that it was written by a Frenchman; I’ve read plenty of Americans and Brits writing fiction about French history but rarely a French novel in translation. I was not disappointed, especially given that the book is written in a much grimmer style than most historical fiction I’ve read.
By this I mean Teule doesn’t miss portraying history as it really was, at least as far as a modern novel can, including all the excesses that to us seem rather vile; nobles stuffing their rotting teeth with butter, the horrors of the duel, even the fact that the king visited with people while on his chamber pot, which I’ve heard before from multiple sources. He’s also quite happy to describe the pleasures that Montespan took with his wife, but given Teule is French, this is no surprise; even when I went to Paris I could tell things were a lot freer in this respect. This is no romantic, sanitized version of history. I questioned at times whether things were that disgusting, but given what I’ve actually learned about the past, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was all true.
The rest of the book is very accurate, at least as far as I can check. It seems excessive, but yes, Montespan did actually protest the fact that his wife was the King’s mistress, reject his offerings, and set up mourning for their love while she was still alive. Even Athenais’s new hairstyle is as described. It’s sensational, but the best kind of sensational because it actually happened. I felt incredibly sorry for the poor man but at the same time wanted to give him a push into getting over his wife. I’ve since learned that poor Montespan has been ridiculed throughout history for refusing to sit back and let the King take his wife while he enjoyed the spoils of it, so I’m glad Teule has at least done his part to turn this around and show the court as a darker and more sinful place than normally portrayed.
If you’re interested in historical fiction that portrays a version of Louis XIV’s court without thick rose-colored glasses on, Monsieur Montespan is an excellent choice. Moreover, it gives us a perspective outside the glittering world of court and Versailles, which I for one quite appreciated. Recommended.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review.