Mistress of the Sun

Sandra Gulland

Touchstone, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7432-9887-2. 374 pages.

As can be deduced from the title, Mistress of the Sun is set at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in seventeenth-century France. It centres on Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis' early mistresses, telling her story from early childhood to death. All the main characters are historical figures.

In 1650, in a rural backwater in central France, six-year-old Louise de la Valliere is entranced by Diablo, a wild white stallion owned by a group of travelling Roma (gypsies). Desperate to tame him, she resorts to a forbidden magical ritual and pays a heavy price. Years later, as a young lady-in-waiting at the glittering royal court, she falls in love again, this time with the King. But as her love for Louis blossoms, Louise finds herself under threat, both from her own fear of the possible consequences of her long-ago dabbling in magic and from a beautiful rival who is as desperate to claim Louis for herself as Louise once was to tame Diablo.

Mistress of the Sun is written in a leisurely style and portrays an enormous wealth of historical detail about seventeenth-century France in general and the Sun King's court in particular. It captures both the absurd extravagances of the court (How many servants and ladies-in-waiting can it possibly take to help a princess get dressed in the morning?) and the squalor underlying the luxury. If you love the minutiae of high life in the past, with details of entertainments, dances, music, masques, clothes, buildings, riding, hunting, food, palace hierarchy and the subterfuges and romantic intrigues of the court, this is the book for you. Be warned, the detailed descriptions extend to all aspects of court life, and you may learn rather more about seventeenth-century (in)sanitary arrangements than you really wanted to know.

Beliefs in religion, magic and superstition play important roles in the novel. I am not keen on historical fantasy (as regular readers will know), and the heavy concentration on magic ritual in the first few chapters came close to putting me off. However, there's no doubt that people at the time did believe in black magic, and the author leaves it open for the reader to decide whether to believe in it along with the characters. Louise's struggles with her conscience over her illicit love for the King are believable, as is her eventual solution. Louis' gradual change from an attractive and sympathetic youth into a selfish absolute monarch insensitive to anything but his own desires is also convincingly charted.

All the wars and most of the politics take place off-stage. The focus of the novel is Louise's emotions and her relationships, with her confessor, her friends, her family, her beloved horse and her rival Athenais (the Marquise de Montespan), as well as with Louis. Indeed, despite the title, the relationship between Louis and Louise doesn't even make an appearance until a third of the way into the book and even then takes a while to get going. Readers for whom Louise's role as royal mistress is their primary interest should be prepared for a slow start.
At times I felt Louise was too sweet to be true. Her confessor describes her as having "a purity of soul that cannot be sullied"; I wondered at her naivety. She can also be seen as rather inclined to lie down and let people walk all over her. To be fair, this reflects the reality of her situation and the limited choices open to a woman in her position, as well as her inclination to be kind to others wherever possible, but readers looking for a heroine who controls events may find Louise's gentle passivity frustrating. I do wish she was not referred to as "Petite" throughout the novel; for all I know it might well be her historically attested nickname but I found it excessively cute. And her first meeting with Louis, riding like a young Diana and mistaking him for a poacher, is so sweetly romantic that I hope it's historically documented. Nevertheless, Louise rarely whines or descends into self-pity (although she had reason to on occasion), and I can think of more reprehensible goals in life than trying to make the people you love happy. I found myself growing to like her character as the novel progressed.

An epilogue wraps up the fates of most of the major characters, which is nice. I would have liked to know what happened to Clorine, Louise's sensible and warm-hearted maid. I hope it was something good. A helpful Author's Note at the end summarises the history underlying the novel, sets out the liberties taken, and explains which characters are real and which composites. Readers may also like to know that a glossary of period terms appears at the end of the book, although most of them can be worked out from context.

Detailed portrait of Louise de la Valliere and the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.