I’ve found the perfect book for curling up in the sofa while snugly wrapped in your warmest throw. I spent many delicious hours reading Sandra Gulland’s newest book Mistress of the Sun. Sandra whose previous books were on the life of Josephine Bonaparte has turned her sights on Madame Louise de la Valière, the first Maitresse en titre of Louis XIV. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Louise de la Valière was born into a humble family. Early in life, she tames a wild horse through bone magic, an act which haunts her throughout her life. She believes that this act of transgression against her faith marks the beginning of her family’s disastrous descent starting with the untimely death of her father. After a series of events, she finds herself in the unlikely position of lady in waiting to the Princess Henriette, King Louis XIV’s sister in law. And such brings her to the attentions of the young Sun King, though their first meeting takes place long before she comes to court in a forest with either of them unknowing of the other’s real identity. When they meet again at Court, the King becomes enamored of the virtuous Petite, as she was known. Slowly she succumbs and they embark on a long affair resulting in four children. Despite the happiness their love affair brings her and the privileges her position affords her and her family, Petite is forever haunted by her conscience. In the end she must learn to find peace in the midst of her royal life.
This is a great piece of historical fiction and a worthy addition to your shelves. Sandra Gulland shows a meticulous eye towards the details of this period. And she paints a vivid picture of Paris under the Sun King. Her lively descriptions of city life and the traffic among the barges as they wait their turn to cross the Seine gives us an extremely rich picture of Paris as it must have been. As the love affair between the King and Petite begins quite early on in his reign, we also see how Versailles is transformed from a humble hunting lodge to the immensely extravagant palace it is now. Rich descriptions aside, what elevates this book from romantic fiction (though I have to admit that there’s nothing wrong with a good romance, now and then) is the portrait Gulland paints of Petite. As portrayed under Gulland’s skillful hands, Petite is a conflicted person who struggles to do her best according to her convictions. While she loves the King greatly, she is unable to reconcile this love with her religious convictions. And it doesn’t help that she is told by court priests that giving in to the King involves a higher moral duty that takes precedence over the simple tenet of respecting marital vows. Unfortunately for Petite, she lived at a time when the King’s word was paramount and there were very little options open to women. It is a triumph of her own personal will when Petite is finally able to make her way towards the peaceful life that long eluded her. “Sin was in her, she knew that, but she would not give way this time.”