Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book review: The Shadow Queen, by Sandra Gulland

Those following the popular trend of “royal mistress” novels will find The Shadow Queen, the newest member of this growing category, strikingly different fare.

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.

Claudette’s rise in status is tethered to that of Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, an aristocratic girl whose beauty is as ethereal as the moon, and whose privileged life seems as unattainable. Their lives intersect several times during Claudette’s teen years. In 1660, the desperate quest for work draws her family to Paris, where she glimpses her dazzling counterpart as she passes by in her handsomely appointed carriage, “her golden earlocks adorned with ribbons, a single strand of pearls tied at the back of her neck… she looked like a creature from another world.”

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.

10 comments:

  1. This sounds a fascinating book. I've read several novels which have been set in the theatre of the past but the French connection opens up a whole new fictional world.

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    1. I agree! I had read works by all three dramatists in college (I was a French major) but knew little about their lives, and I don't remember seeing this era depicted in fiction before. It was enjoyable seeing them interact in the flesh, so to speak.

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  2. I'm looking forward to reading this. The French theatrical background sounds fascinating. I've also read works by all three dramatists, but I don't know much about their lives. Do you recommend reading Mistress of the Sun first?

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    1. You should be able to read the books in either order since they stand independently of one another. Louise de la Valliere appears in this one but isn't a major character.

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  3. This sounds delicious! This period has always fascinated me, as it brought us the French Academies -- for dance and music (i.e. ballet -- or as it was called then, the opera-ballet) the arts academy and the acadamy for swords and horsemanship -- and all three of these were so entwined with public presentation of self. The terms and the forms of standing, holding one's arms, etc., translate throughout from the stances of dueling, the forms of highly trained war horses -- and the Viennese Royal Riding School lippizans -- the stage, to king and his court -- who also performed on stage.

    Fabulous material. I used it a bit in one of my novels. Though this material wasn't the focus, it was the cause. :)

    Love, C.

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    1. That sounds equally fascinating. This book sticks pretty much to the world of the theatre (although there is a duel in it - not to give too much away, though). Her previous novel Mistress of the Sun goes into horsemanship of the time in much greater detail. :)

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  4. Believe it or not -- I read the novel last night. :) I have come down with a bug, confined at home, have laryngitis, am tired and achey and stupid. My Wonderful Personal Person lickety-splitted to a local library branch and took Shadow Queen out for me, once I determined it was available and where. It was excellent symptomatic relief last night for what is ailing me.

    Thank you!

    Love, C.

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    1. How terrible to get a nasty bug at the beginning of spring. Hope you're feeling back up to speed soon. I'm pleased to hear the novel was a good escape from all of that! And that's great you were able to find it and have it in hand so quickly, with help from your WPP. :)

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  5. Good evening, I appreciated reading your review as you like to dig into the heart of the stories you read & thereby making the reading of your review quite enjoyable indeed! :) I loved seeing the breadth of your recollection is nearly a match to my own, as we picked up on similar observations on Claudette's life!

    This is my first novel by Sandra Gulland to read, but next I want to seek out the Josephine B trilogy through my local library! :) Her style gives you a wanting for more!

    I was so caught up in the world of the theatre scene that I had to remind myself there was also going to be a thread to the Crown & to the King! Gulland writes the stage in such a way you feel a part of the cast & crew who brought the performances to life as much as the angst ridden the playwrights & theatre owners to forge a living in a world working against their efforts.

    Jorie's Review of The Shadow Queen

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  6. I haven't read much set in this time period but I am familiar with the characters. I also haven't read any of Gulland's novels, despite having Mistress of the Sun on my bookshelf. Have to fix that soon. Thanks for the review.

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