In Mistress of the Sun, Sandra Gulland, author of the outstanding Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, takes the reader to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. She tells the story of the young Louis XIV’s first mistress, Louise de la Vallière. If today’s readers know about Louise de la Vallière at all, they probably know of her through Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name, one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers, which, of course, is a highly fictionalized account. I have also heard she is a character in the recent television series Versailles, but I have never seen the series, so I don’t know how much of a role she plays.
Gulland brings Louise to life, and makes her a highly sympathetic character. Louise is the daughter of an impoverished minor nobleman living in the countryside near Tours, France. When she is six years old, she uses “bone magic,” a form of ancient magic, to tame a wild white stallion named Diablo—a horse no one else has been able to tame. Whether the magic really works or whether the horse just develops a bond with Louise, who always has a way with horses, is left up to the reader, but Louise believes she has let the Devil in, and a series of disasters follows. She tries to atone for this mistake for the rest of her life.
Louise’s father dies shortly after he sees her riding the horse, and she thinks she caused his death. When her widowed mother marries a pompous, much-older Marquis, Louise becomes a lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s cousin, Princess Marguerite, who is supposed to marry the king. Instead, Louis marries a Spanish princess as part of a peace treaty between France and Spain, and the heartbroken Marguerite goes to Florence to marry the Grand Duke of Tuscany. She is not allowed to take her French ladies with her, and so Louise ends up as a lady-in-waiting to another royal relative, Henriette, daughter of Charles I of England and wife of Louis’ brother Philippe.
Louise meets Louis for the first time when she goes into the forest to find a runaway horse and encounters a handsome young man she mistakes for a poacher. This is, of course, the king traveling incognito. They are instantly attracted to each other, but their relationship takes a while to develop once Louise realizes the “poacher” is the king. At first, Louis pretends to court her when his real object is his sister-in-law Henriette. Louise is furious at the deception, but eventually she and Louis realize they have much in common: both love horses and hunting, both are excellent dancers (even though Louise has one leg shorter than the other because of a childhood riding accident), and both are great readers, especially of ancient literature and philosophy. The two begin an affair, which Louise feels terribly guilty about at first, because she is very religious and had wanted to become a nun before she met Louis, even though her family didn’t have enough money to allow her to join a convent. But her strong love for Louis overcomes her guilt.
The two lovers must keep their affair a secret because Louis doesn’t want to offend his wife and mother, and Louise doesn’t want her family to find out. Her mother has not given up hope of finding a noble husband for her, even though the family cannot afford a dowry, and Louise is afraid her mother will disown her when she finds out she has been “ruined” by her affair with the king. Over the years, Louise gives birth to four children by the king. Sadly, the first two die in early childhood. The finance minister, Colbert, helps her find a secret place where she can give birth, and he and his wife help to raise the children.
Of course, the secret cannot be kept for very long, and most people at court have some knowledge of it, even though they do their best not to let the queen, the queen mother, and Louise’s family know. When Louise’s brother discovers that he owes his promotion in the army to his sister’s relationship with the king, it all comes out into the open, and her mother disowns her at first, even though they reconcile later. Louis acknowledges Louise’s two surviving children as his own and legitimizes them, but they cannot be heirs to the throne. He makes her a duchess, which means she outranks her own mother and many ladies of the court.
After Louise becomes the official mistress, she is the object of jealousy and intrigues at court, and her relationship with Louis has its ups and downs as Louis becomes more the absolute monarch instead of the young man with whom Louise fell in love. As Gulland notes, of all Louis XIV’s mistresses, Louise was the only one who really loved the man instead of the king. As the king takes over from the man, the relationship begins to break apart. Louise is devastated when she realizes that her best friend, Madame de Montespan, has also become the king’s mistress.
Louis orders that the two women live in adjoining rooms, so he can visit them both. Needless to say, this arrangement is extremely uncomfortable for both of them. Louise begins to suffer from frequent ill health, and Madame de Montespan becomes more and more unhinged, and one night she tries to stab Louise, even though Louis convinces her that her rival would have held herself back in the end. One by one, Louise’s belongings go missing, and she suspects her rival of stealing them. A search of Madame de Montespan’s bedchamber proves her right, and Louise also finds objects of witchcraft and believes her rival has used sorcery to captivate the king. As with the “bone magic,” Gulland leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the magic actually works or not. Soon Louise has a choice before her: whether to stay with the king whose affections have strayed, or to join a convent.
Gulland does a wonderful job of conveying the details of life at the court of Louis XIV, with its elaborate rituals and etiquette. She makes readers feel they are present at the court entertainments: pageants, balls, operas, plays, ballets, and banquets. Louis’ royal residences in Paris, Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and, of course, Versailles, are described in detail, but the reader should note that these are the very early days of Versailles. It began as a hunting lodge, and throughout the novel it is given its older spelling of Versaie. Louis and Louise share a love of the place, and Louis spends more and more time there because it is a place where he and Louise can be together. We see the beginning of its transformation into the grand palace it later became, but Louise was no longer at court to see that transformation to the end, and in her time it is not yet the court’s official residence. Readers expecting details of life at the palace of Versailles might be disappointed, but Gulland’s account of the early years of Louis XIV’s court should make up for that.
Above all, Gulland has created an engaging heroine in Louise de la Vallière. She is, in many ways, an unlikely person to be a royal mistress: painfully shy, very religious, and physically awkward. As mentioned, Louise walks with a limp because one leg is shorter than the other. She is also very short, and is called by her childhood nickname of “Petite.” One thing that attracts Louis to her is her difference from the sophisticated court ladies. The reader keeps hoping that Louise’s and Louis’ love will last, even though history tells us that was not to be. Also, Gulland has a wonderful job of writing about the belief in magic in 17th century France. It was a society where the Catholic Church was very powerful, but, at the same time, people believed in magic that went back to pre-Christian times, and didn’t see those two beliefs as a contradiction. Certainly, Louise does not. She has a strong Catholic faith, but thinks that her childhood dabbling in magic was responsible for the misfortunes in her life. How she reconciles these two systems of belief is a very important part of the novel. This is a wonderful historical novel with an unforgettable heroine.
Mistress of the Sun is available from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.