The Enemies of Versailles
Release date: March 21, 2017
at Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
I recently reviewed Marie-Antoinette’s Darkest Days, focusing on Marie-Antoinette’s last months in prison. Now with The Enemies of Versailles, we are looking at an earlier period, coinciding with Marie-Antoinette’s arrival in France, as a young 14 year old. But this historical novel is far more than that, it’s a large fresco on the end of Louis XV’s reign as well as the end of an era.
This is actually the third and last book of a series, the Mistresses of Versailles. This “trilogy examines the personal life of a controversial monarch through the lives of his many mistresses”.
I regret that the unity of the trilogy was aesthetically broken by the publisher who decided to change the cover of this third volume. It would have made so much more sense to have three similar covers. Especially as covers 1 and 2 were had a unique style, and cover 3 had already been designed!
I think Sally Christie did a marvelous job through this trilogy at highlighting something unique in the life of King Louis XV. As she explains in the Afterword, his “preferences in women coincided neatly with the emerging egalitarianism of the Enlightenment: after the Nesle sisters (from the high nobility- see The Sisters of Versailles), he was the first king to have a bourgeois mistress (Madame de Pompadour – see The Rivals of Versailles) and then followed that scandal by becoming the first king to install at Versailles an official mistress from the lower classes (the Comtesse du Barry)”.
This collision between different worlds is astutely presented in this last book, with its double narrators: chapters alternate in the first person, between Jeanne Bécu’s (Comtesse du Barry) point of view and milieu, and Adélaïde’s (one of the king’s daughters).
Jeanne is a nobody at first, her mother cooks and sells chickens. After eight years spent in a convent for her education, she works in a shop and is noticed by du Barry. He uses her as a “milk cow”, a courtisane, but then manages to have her enter the world of Versailles, where she quickly becomes the king’s mistress.
Adélaïde is the most strict of the six sisters, “a paragon of virtue and discipline”, adamant at maintaining the etiquette at court. Her hate of La Pompadour (dying near the beginning of the book) will soon be replaced by her disdain for Jeanne, and even for Marie-Antoinette, when she realizes the young Austrian dauphine (brought in France to marry young Louis-Auguste, future Louis XVI) is much too informal.
You already have here several ways of understanding the title of The Enemies of Versailles. There are many more layers to it, as little by little, you feel the winds of change rising, that will end up with the killing of King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Jeanne, and many representatives of the monarchy.
Christie did a great job at describing life at court and then the shift of mentality throughout her book. This is nicely illustrated in the shift in mood: at first, the tone is light, funny even at times (for instance with the use of some hilarious subtitles for chapters, in the old mode of writing titles chapters, for instance: Chapter 6, in which Jeanne falls, but lands quite comfortably).
Little by little, things get serious and dramatic, with the Revolution looming then destroying all that the characters knew. If there’s a lot of giggling mentioned (a word quoted 45 times throughout the novel), characters slowly mellow as they age and get slightly more accepting. The end is more about human wisdom and experience.
The book is also of course a great window on the personality of Louis XV (and his relationship to women), as well as Louis XVI.
I would highly recommend the novel as a great primer on the circumstances and events announcing the French Revolution, as well as its dreadful happenings. Thanks to Sally Christie for making history so fascinating and never boring!
VERDICT: Fabulous conclusion of this trilogy on Versailles. Through the author’s careful study and lively style, a major page of French history is made fascinating and easy to understand.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute is quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades of suffering the King’s endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches irrevocable change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is the author of The Sisters of Versailles
The Rivals of Versailles.
She was born in England and grew up around the world,
attending eight schools in three different languages.
She spent most of her career working
in international development and currently lives in Toronto.
Visit her Facebook Page
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