On January 9, 1722, two cortèges unload and swap their passengers at Pheasant Island, a neutral point in the Pyrenees region. To ally their quarrelsome countries, 12-year-old Louise Élisabeth of Orléans, one of the many neglected daughters of France’s regent, will marry the Spanish heir, Luis, while Luis’ half-sister, Mariana Victoria, an adorable three-year-old who clings to her dolls, is sent to France to wed the adolescent Louis XV. “Could a more perfect symmetry be imagined?” Thomas ironically observes.
Writing in a formal style, she highlights the absurdity of royal ceremonies and the cruel circumstances that abandon these girls to their fates and deny them anything resembling a real childhood. Excerpts from authentic, little-known letters and documents add to the reading experience.
Chantal Thomas' The Exchange of Princesses, ably translated into English by John Cullen, will be published by Other Press in July ($16.95, trade pb, 336pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's June issue.
An additional note: I've read many novels about royalty (they're a special interest), so it's rare for me to pick up a work of royal fiction without knowing how it will end, but this particular episode was entirely new. If you haven't heard of it either, avoid Wikipedia before beginning!