Charlatan recounts two alternating stories: that of Athénaïs de Montespan, the king's longtime mistress, who is growing older and falling out of favor; and the crime investigation occurring within the grim Château de Vincennes, the royal fortress where the accused are imprisoned and questioned.
As suspense about Athénaïs' possible involvement in the scheme grows, the two stories collide. The fortune-teller Catherine Montvoisin, known as La Voisin, had many prominent clients, which eventually leads authorities right to Athénaïs herself. Was she trying to win back the king's affections through love potions, or did she resort to more sinister means?
I hope you'll enjoy reading this interview with the author. Charlatan, which was was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society & Mslexia New Novel Awards, was published by Fireship Press in September (300pp, $19.99 in paperback or $7.99 ebook). For readers interested in learning more, visit Kate Braithwaite's website. Goodreads has a giveaway for a signed copy, too, running through Oct 14th.
I’ve read a number of historical novels set during Louis XIV’s reign – the majority focus on his love life – but yours is the first I’ve read that delves into the Affair of the Poisons. What interests you in this dark time in French history?
I’ve always liked crime fiction – I’ve probably read everything by Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin novel, Minette Walters, Michael Connolly and others – and I studied gothic literature as part of my degree course. I also think, perhaps because I’m Scottish, that I’m drawn to parts of history where people are more superstitious and more inclined to be drawn into believing in witchcraft. When I was ten years old, I played the third witch in Macbeth at school and I loved it. I first came across the Affair of the Poisons in Nancy Mitford’s book about Louis XIV. It was so unexpected and in such contrast to all the baroque beauty of the Versailles world. I immediately wanted to know everything about it.
Charlatan keeps readers guessing about Athénaïs’ level of involvement in and knowledge about La Voisin’s deadly rituals. I won’t give anything away, but did your research shift your original perceptions about her level of complicity at all?
Definitely. I was first drawn to writing about Athénaïs because I was sympathetic to her as a woman. There she was, approaching forty, having had seven children with the King (plus two others with her husband) and having to watch as an eighteen-year-old beauty supplanted her. I wanted her to be innocent of the charges leveled against her, but at the same time I could imagine equally easily that La Voisin’s world might have been very tempting. She was incredibly intelligent and witty as well as a great beauty: yet totally reliant upon the King for her and her children’s future. So I did all the reading and tried to get to know as much as I could about her character. That then led the way for the story in Charlatan.
One aspect I enjoyed the most was the interaction between Athénaïs and her former rival, Louise de la Vallière, who left court and took the veil. How did you develop their changing relationship?
Thank you! That is also one of my favourite parts and although I don’t have any historical source suggesting Athénaïs went to visit Louise in her convent, once I had the idea that she might have done, I had to go with it. Athénaïs may or may not have been guilty of many things, but it is certain that she was a poor friend to Louise de la Valliere. When Louis discarded Louise for Athénaïs, Louise was forced to remain at court for years and pretend their sexual relationship was ongoing as Louis walked through her rooms to reach Athénaïs’ suite. When Charlatan opens, it is Athénaïs who is being discarded by Louis, in favour of Angélique de Fontanges. I wanted to see how Louise would react to that and if two women with so much history between them could have any kind of friendship.
The novel’s organization, alternating between the perspective of Athénaïs at the Sun King’s court (and elsewhere) and the investigation being conducted at the Chateau de Vincennes, kept the pages turning and the suspense level high. How did you conceptualize this structure?
From very early on I knew this had to be a novel told from a range of perspectives. Although my starting point in conceiving the novel was with Athénaïs, I became hugely fascinated with the criminals themselves. The world of seventeenth century fortune-tellers was highly competitive and for some, very lucrative. The whole industry of poisons, love potions and black magic was great fun to research. I was also interested in the investigators – perhaps because of all the police procedurals I have read! I imagine that being the person charged with telling Louis XIV, the most glorious King in Europe, that his long-term mistress had ensnared him for years with love potions and possibly devil worship, was an unenviable position to be in. Also, for much of the time, Athénaïs had no way of knowing what the prisoners in the Chateau de Vincennes were saying about her and so the story needed their direct input. Alternating between the court and the investigation meant I could tell all sides of the story.
I found it fascinating to learn in your afterword about Louis XIV’s attempts to conceal evidence mentioning his former mistress in the 17th century, and the re-emergence of this knowledge and publication of relevant records two centuries later. How did this come about?
In 1709, after both Athénaïs and the chief investigator, Nicholas La Reynie, were dead, Louis XIV asked Jean Sargot, La Reynie’s recording officer, to retrieve all the documentation relating to the affair and in particular to Athénaïs. Louis examined the papers and then he burned them. Any evidence appeared to have been safely destroyed but there were copies, stowed in the prison’s archive. These could easily have been destroyed during the storming of the Bastille in 1789 when rioters and looters plundered the prison, including the archive. After the revolutionary dust had settled what papers remained were bundled up and moved to the Arsenal building: ironically, the place where the trials of the criminals involved in the Affair had taken place a century earlier.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a librarian, François Ravaisson, began to catalogue the Bastille papers kept in the Arsenal. In the 1870’s the newly organized collection was published in a nineteen-volume set called the Archive of the Bastille. Four volumes are devoted to the records of the La Reynie’s investigation and they include interrogations of La Voisin and the shocking accusations made by several people, including La Voisin’s daughter Marie, against the King’s most famous mistress.
During your research, did you come across any interesting tidbits or historical characters that you thought about including in the story but were unable to?
Yes! I wanted to write more about the Mancini sisters. One sister, Olympe, the Comtesse de Soissons, is mentioned in the novel as a potential poisoner of her husband. She was a lover of Louis XIV for a time, as was her sister Marie Mancini. Another sister, Hortense, who was a lover of Charles II. Perhaps they need a novel of their own? Then there was Jean Racine, the poet, who was implicated in the Affair of the Poisons. I would love to have included him. I also would have liked to feature Madame de Brinvilliers, a French poisoner and aristocrat who was executed in Paris in 1676. In a way her crimes set the scene for the revelations of the Affair of the Poisons only a few years later.
And I never managed to work into the novel the way that the whole series of arrests began. The first fortune-teller arrested in 1678 was Marie Bosse (named Martine in the novel). She had worked closely with La Voisin for many years but they had fallen out. Dining at the house of her new partner La Vigeroux, Marie Bosse had too much to drink and boasted to a lawyer she had only just met that the poisoning business was making her rich. That man informed on her, and both La Bosse and La Vigeroux were arrested. Their testimony led to the huge investigation that followed.
Do you have any favorite authors or novels? Has your experience with reading and evaluating historical fiction had influence on your own writing?
Some of my favourite novels are My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Possession by A.S. Byatt and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Two favourite historical novels I’ve read this year are Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham and Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone.
It is often said that writers need to read widely and well, and I think I’ve always done that, but I’ve found that taking the additional step of reviewing books has been invaluable. Before I started reviewing for the Historical Novel Society and Bookbrowse, I would read actively but not really pin down what I liked or did not like in a novel. I’d have an emotional reaction without really asking myself why. Being tasked with producing honest and considered and reviews has made me think long and hard about what works and what doesn’t. Before this experience I struggled as an editor of my own work, but now I feel much more able to find problems in my drafts and read my own work as a reader might.