In her previous excursions into French history, Sandra Gulland had chronicled the stories of two court outsiders – Empress Josephine and Louise de la Vallière – who never expected to capture a monarch’s heart. Her fifth book depicts an even more unlikely entrant to exalted royal circles: Claude des Oeillets, nicknamed Claudette, a tall, attractive woman with stagecraft in her blood. In rich, descriptive language, she recounts her life story from her youth as a poor traveling player, wandering the French countryside outside Poitiers with her parents and mentally disabled brother, through her unwitting involvement in the notorious Affaire des Poisons during the Sun King’s reign.
With these incandescent words, Gulland illustrates Claudette’s growing enchantment with the young woman who calls herself Athénaïs – a name that will surely register with devotees of the period. This fervent, almost romantic desire for Athénaïs and her alluring world will cause the otherwise levelheaded Claudette to forsake her old life, and will push her onto a more glamorous and more dangerous stage than the one she knows.
Claudette’s heart – and the novel’s – lies in the bustling world of the 17th-century Parisian theatre. This atmosphere pulses with activity: the designing of sets, the players’ pre-show stresses and magnificent performances, and the fierce rivalry among playwrights Corneille and Molière and that troublesome newcomer, Racine, who has his own agenda. These vivacious characters and scenes beg the question of why more novelists haven’t made use of this fabulous material. As Claudette mends costumes and takes on minor roles, she sees her widowed mother, the fragile yet brilliant Alix, achieve renown as a tragic actress: another hidden-from-history tale which Gulland places before her audience.
There was a downside to the acting life in this time and place, though. Performers were admired while in their element, but elsewhere they were scorned by many, the church included. As such, Claudette and her associates are forbidden the Eucharist, and proper burial when the time comes, unless they renounce the stage. And so when Athénaïs – now married to the unpleasant Marquis de Montespan – has need of someone she can trust, Claudette trades her comfortable place in the theatre for a respectable position as Athénaïs’ confidential maid.
Through the story of Claudette’s role as suivante to the temperamental Athénaïs, Louis XIV’s favorite mistress, both the opulence and hypocrisy of court life are laid bare. The castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye is furnished with every luxury, and the view from its turrets so breathtaking, with “the frozen Seine unfurled like a silver ribbon in and around the gentle hills, clouded at times by wreaths of smoke,” that readers may find themselves lingering over that scene just to spend more time there.
However, nearly everyone in this wondrous place hides their true selves behind a mask. To her credit, Athénaïs is no snob and is generous to her maid, but her obsession with eliminating competition for the king’s favor leads them into dicey situations – and leaves Claudette to find her own way out.
Claudette is a sympathetic character over the 30-plus years that her tale extends, though her eagerness to please can be overplayed. She spices her narrative with parenthetical asides and interjections (“Ay me”) that are sometimes charming, sometimes cloying. Her servant's role doesn’t give her a front row seat at the royal court, which may dishearten fans looking for juicier intrigue, but she’s a perceptive storyteller nonetheless.
Servants are granted a uniquely close-up view of royalty, and while King Louis intimidates Claudette, through her eyes he's shown in a more human light. One episode in which she and his valet awkwardly wait outside Athénaïs’ rooms during her noisy lovemaking session with the king shows the author’s flair for comedy as well as drama. Likewise, while Claudette describes King Louis as a “handsome, well-made man,” she can’t help but observe that “His Majesty was taller than most, almost as tall as I was.” Both here and elsewhere, Gulland’s heroine proves to be a loyal, valiant woman who can hold her head up high.
The Shadow Queen was published in April by Doubleday ($25.95, hb, 336pp). The Canadian publisher is HarperCollins Canada. Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me an ARC at my request.