A mere seven years separates Louise (the eldest) from Marie-Anne (the youngest), with Pauline, Diane, and Hortense in between. The closeness that develops among them, after their mother’s tragic early death and their father’s abandonment, means they know each other well… their distinctive qualities as well as their weaknesses, and how best to exploit them. No one can be as jealous or as critical as one’s sister when she has something you want for yourself. And the gowns the women wear (or don’t wear) in their king’s presence are stunning.
On the other hand, the comparison to Philippa Gregory’s oeuvre isn’t always apropos. King Louis is a more attractive prospect than tyrannical serial-husband Henry VIII, his royal court feels even more decadent than that of the Tudors, and the novel is simply hilarious in places. The sisters’ letters to one another, which are scattered throughout the book, express their dry wit and occasional cattiness. They’re also privy to a lot of lewd talk at court and elsewhere. The racy double entendres are funny when the women understand the references, and even funnier when they don’t.
The novel is framed by the observations of Hortense, the longest-lived and most sensible sister, and the only sexual holdout among the five, though that was her decision. (“I could have,” she tells us on page one. “Had I wanted. Because he – the king – he certainly wanted.”) Through their first-person accounts and notes zipping back and forth, the sisters reveal the events of their lives: from the time gentle Louise is hand-selected by the king’s advisers as his first-ever, secret mistress through the ascension, years later, of Marie-Anne, whose youthful bookishness conceals a latent drive for power.
Pauline’s ambition shows in her repeated pleadings for Louise to invite her to court -- which her sister spends years ignoring. Diane, possessed of a warm, jolly nature and terrible handwriting, just wants to find happiness but gets mixed up in her sisters’ schemes.
The details on how the four siblings succeed one another in the king’s bed are as dramatic as you’d expect. Members of the court, even as dissolute as it is, are scandalized by the whole prospect. Over the course of the book, Louis XV transforms from a reluctant adulterer to a libertine despite himself, and the sisters – some more than others – learn how to handle him to get what they want. Each is a unique individual, and their shifting relationships with one another, moving from loving and supportive to antagonistic and back again, kept me turning the pages quickly. King Louis may be an absolute monarch, but in this engrossing novel, it’s the women who rule.
Sally Christie's The Sisters of Versailles is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster (pb and ebook, 432pp). This review marks the first stop on the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. Thanks to the publisher for giving me access via Edelweiss.