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The Sisters of Versailles
The Sisters of Versailles
by Sally Christie
Release date: September 1, 2015
at Atria Book/Simon & Schuster
This book counts for the following Reading Challenges
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
British royalty could well be one of the most common current topics of historical fiction.
Little by little however, Anglophone writers start to pay more attention to the other side of the pond. The French court has definitely its share of fascinating characters and intrigues to satisfy all readers fond of the genre. Imagine for instance a king having four sisters of the same family as his mistresses! Ah, ze French! Yes, King XV (1710-1774) did it, before bedding even more famous women (to come in Sally Christie’s next two books!).
In 1935, French author Émile Henriot wrote some invented dialogs featuring these De Mailly-Nesle sisters (Portraits de femmes). But it seems Sally Christie has the honor of being the first English speaking author to tackle this extraordinary feat. The Sisters of Versailles is the masterful retelling of how this came to be.
There were actually five De Mailly-Nesle sisters. Here are in the first row the portraits of those who became the King’s mistresses.
Pauline, the second here, is the one chosen for the fabulous double book cover.
Only Hortense (in the second row) avoided the king’s bed, by choice.
As the book opens, in 1799, Hortense is 84, the only survivor of the siblings, and she reminisces about her life and her sisters.
When Louise, the eldest, became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie of France at the age of 19, Pauline was 17, Diane 15, Hortense 14, and Marie-Anne 12.
The novel is about the life of the sisters and of the French court of the time.
The narrator of each chapter alternates between the sisters. At the end of each chapter, each written in the first person, there’s an epistolary exchange between two sisters or more. I really enjoyed this style of writing. The alternation between the retelling and the letters made the whole book quite lively. Plus, it allowed a better glimpse at the character of each sister (they are so different!) and at the dramatic interaction and feelings developing all along the book between them. Some passages are even hilarious and you can’t miss the sarcasm, especially in Pauline’s tone.
The novel is extremely rich at so many other levels. Let me try to highlight what made it so special for me:
1. First the places. The story goes from their childhood home in Paris to the court of Versailles, with also elements about their life in between, in the countryside for some, in the famous Port-Royal abbey for others. The sisters also live for many years at their aunt’s place, the Hôtel de Mazarin, famous as well. And King Louis XV has the palace at Choisy renovated to please Pauline. There are several other renowned places mentioned. You could trace the route of each sister and make it your guide for your next trip to France!
2. The descriptions of these places are fabulous, for instance the glory and beauty of what the public see at Versailles versus the squalor of the backrooms!
I really enjoyed the alternations between the dream to be at court, the first grandiose glimpses of it, and then when reality set in, the disenchanted realization that it was definitely not the best of all worlds.
And now I am here in the center of the world, both hating it and loving it.
says Louise, on p.23
3. The evocation of the life style of the time. Titles were still extremely important (the French Revolution had yet to come) and were the important criteria for marriage at the high levels of society. Certainly not love for most, and of course faithfulness was quite rare.
Once married, the wife was often left to herself and extremely bored, especially if the husband was busy with military pursuits, as is well illustrated in several passages.
As for the children, even the Queen could not even find comfort in them, as they were early on dispatched to convents or to prospective spouses in other kingdoms.
4. The relationships between people at court. With Louise, you can be shocked at the disrespect and caustic comments against the Queen, a foreigner who was never really accepted. She was seven years older than the king, who was Louise’s age.
The gossips and secrets are quite juicy, highlighting corruption and dynamics of jealousy and manipulation, to the point of cruelty and hatred (including between the sisters themselves!). Basically that was the only way of surviving for long at court, or like epidemics you could not avoid:
When one is surrounded by vice, that which shocks fast become normal.
I know scandals grow like mold on a wet wall here at Versailles.
With jealousy come envy and self-interest, nurturing plans, and intrigues over precedence. The big thing was to get to court and there to find a decent husband with a nice title and good money, for oneself , for one’s relatives and friends. And when you no longer could offer favors, you started making many enemies.
All this on the background of fashionable displays (hairdos and dresses!) in daily life and at balls. Secrets were actually epitomized by famous masked balls.
5. The person of the king is shown with complex facets.
Human, down to earth sometimes, with his passion for hunting, and even enjoying gardening and cooking especially later on, under the influence of Pauline (at least she thinks so).
But also quite separated from reality, from what the poor were going through outside his palace. He does seem to be sensitive to their situation at times (we first hear about people complaining not having bread, fifty years before the French Revolution because of a series of harsh winters), and even fear their judgment almost as much as God’s (when preparing to add a new mistress to his collection).
But he is ultimately a weak man, morally and politically speaking, more a puppet than a king (he received the power way too young, and actually others were holding the reigns in his name).
This drives Pauline crazy, she wants him to be more assertive, to show he has the ultimate power, and she is one of the strong voices persuading him to go to war against Austria.
Same thing when it comes to his mistresses, basically others choose for him and push the ladies to his bed when they sense the king is getting tired of his own wife.
Louise is the first in the book to experience she had no choice but to obey. Even if ultimately, of all four sisters, I believe she was the only one who really loved him for himself, not for the advantages she could get from this situation, and not using her position to get more power.
I even found a neat quotation about books! Pauline writes about “a large library”, that it was “the saving grace of the house and of [her] life.” (p.72)
I guess you understand by now why I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait to read the two upcoming books of the trilogy.
Bravo to Sally Christie for her debut novel!
VERDICT: Extremely engaging debut on eighteenth century French court. A king plus four sisters: a recipe for intrigues masterfully presented for the first time in English. A must for all historical fiction lovers.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France’s most “well-beloved” monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.
Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters—Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne—four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.
Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best feet—and women—forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, she and her sisters—ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne—will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
The Sisters of Versailles is a treat through and through – the characters are witty and engaging and come together to create an undeniable page-turner. Sally Christie has a wonderful sense of pace and the book unfolds in front of you like a delicious gift. Even as the scandals pile up and the intrigue mounts, you can’t help but fall in love with these sisters and their competing infatuations with the King.
In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood—of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sally Christie was born in England of British parents
and grew up around the world,
attending eight schools in three languages.
She spent most of her career working in international development
and is currently settled in Toronto.
A life-long history buff who wishes time travel were a real possibility
—she’d be off to the eighteenth century in a flash!
The Sisters of Versailles is her first novel.
Visit her Facebook Page
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