Friday, July 17, 2009

Book review: Susan Holloway Scott's The French Mistress

(This is the first of three reviews of novels by authors consistently given Editor's Choice status by the Historical Novels Review. I take no credit for this, as the editors simply choose the novels that the reviewers recommend most highly. This also marks a stop on Susan Holloway Scott's online book tour; for more details, read to the bottom of the review.)

As the most honored mistress of Charles II of England and a spy for Louis XIV of France, Louise de Keroualle was in a unique position to nurture an alliance between their two countries. That she carried out her mission while remaining high in the favor of both men testifies to her cleverness, ambition, and unwavering devotion to her royal lover. It’s no surprise that Louise’s story is a compelling one, and Scott’s fictionalized memoir of this fascinating woman brims with color and vitality.

In the prologue, set in London in 1685, Louise looks back on her life to that point, acknowledging her bad reputation among the English while remaining proud of her accomplishments. We follow her journey beginning in 1668, when as a shy eighteen-year-old she joins the household of the English-born Henriette-Anne, Duchesse d’Orleans, as a maid of honor. Louise soon becomes the confidante of “Madame,” witnessing her abusive marriage and her close relationship with her royal brother, Charles, with whom she frequently corresponds.

After Madame’s tragic (and suspicious) early death, Louise obeys the Sun King’s request that she travel to England to seduce Charles and ensure his sympathy to French interests. It’s a dangerous game, for her nationality and Catholicism make her an easy target in that overly Protestant country, but Louise’s beauty, elegance, and kindness capture Charles’s attention. Surrounded by flatterers and enemies, Louise learns that the king is the only person she can trust in England, but she finds that sufficient.

Scott has the gift of creating appealing characters while simultaneously allowing us to observe their flaws. Louise retains her charm, even when we’re presented with hints that Englishmen had good reason to note her appetite for jewels and other royal gifts. Similarly, although Charles is hardly faithful, because we understand the values they share, we also share her assurance that Charles will always return to her. We don’t get the chance to fully indulge in the bawdiness of the Restoration court – though Louise observes it on occasion, she’s an unwilling participant – but this fits in with her narrative. The technique used for her dialogue, which omits French vocabulary save for titles and honorifics, feels quite natural to read.

The French Mistress presents a study in contrasts. Louis XIV rules by divine right; despite his magnificent public persona, he keeps his innermost feelings private, so much so that the only evidence his courtiers have of his ongoing relations with his mistress is her appearance on his daily schedule. On the other hand, Charles II’s open, outgoing nature shows in his attendance at Drury Lane theatres and the considerably more relaxed atmosphere at the English court. We also view his ongoing frustration with Parliament, particularly in his efforts to show tolerance to Catholics in his realm.

Through Louise’s jealous eyes we also glimpse her fellow mistresses: notorious Barbara Villiers, saucy Nell Gwyn, and bold, brazen Hortense Mancini, who briefly replaces her in the king’s bed. This provides an even fuller picture of Charles II and his age. And although Louise herself may be sorry to hear this, her narrative served to whet my appetite for two of her competitors’ stories, as recounted in The Royal Harlot and The King’s Favorite.

The French Mistress was published in July by NAL/Penguin ($15.00/C$18.50, 477pp including author's note + discussion questions, pb, 978-0-751-22694-1). To visit the other stops on Susan Holloway Scott's tour-du-blog, visit her News page.


  1. Sounds interesting. I will have to keep it in mind. Thanks for the review!

  2. Great review, I am looking forward to reading this one.

  3. essay2:01 AM

    This novel reminds me of the Mata Hari. A spy of her own.