I also got the reviews for November's HNS editors' choice books online, now that the issue's at the printer. Of this list, I've read the Frazier and the Koen; the latter, I finished over the weekend and enjoyed, though I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites of the year. But it did interest me in the court of Louis XIV, and specifically to pick up - on impulse - another novel of the period that I've had sitting on my bookshelf far too long. And which, as it turns out, I enjoyed even more.
Alice Acland's The Secret Wife (St. Martin's, 1975) is a deceptively short biographical novel about Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, who becomes the morganatic wife of Louis XIV when they're both middle-aged. Told in the form of a fictional memoir, it begins in Françoise's poverty-ridden youth, when she abandons her family's Huguenot beliefs for Catholicism out of political necessity. Her uneasy relationship with Madame de Montespan, the king's official mistress, occupies a fair amount of the plot. Drawn against her will to the king's inner circle, Françoise becomes the guardian of her patroness's bastard children by the king, and later - to everyone's surprise, hers most of all - she manages to attract and hold the attention of the king himself. She becomes his secret wife, but despite this close relationship, she's never treated as his equal. Nor does she expect to be.
All of the characters are well-drawn, from major ones like Mme de Montespan and Louis XIV down to the king's coarse-mouthed but colorful German sister-in-law, called simply Madame. Because Acland stays entirely within her protagonist's head, one never gets to see how Françoise's sobering influence affects the ribald royal court, for instance, yet she's a sympathetic and compelling narrator of her own life story. There are a few small liberties taken with chronology (Acland includes an author's note), and all but one of the characters appears in the historical record. This is an excellent example of biographical fiction, and a painless way of learning more about French history. I finished it in less than 24 hours, which for me lately is some sort of record.
Now on to the first of my two 600-pp review books. With this one and the Donati under my belt, I should be quite the expert on the War of 1812 soon.