As Showtime’s The Tudors comes to a close, royal junkies might be looking for their next Meyer replacement hottie. Sure...Henry VIII may have had a great calf, but he couldn’t hold a candle to Louis XIV’s delicately hosed gams. As skilled in the hunt as he was performing a ballet, Louis was the metro-sexual hunk of his day and women tended to fall into a helpless swoon in his presence.
One of the women to fall victim to Louis’ charms was Henriette-Anne, Duchess of Orleans. (shown here). Many historians have commented that Henriette-Anne would have made the perfect queen of France ….if she had not been already married to Louis’ brother, Philippe. But a forbidden relationship didn’t stop Louis and Henriette-Anne from spending way too much time together and soon their friendship attracted court gossip and the stern disapproval of Louis’ mother. In 17th century France, it was perfectly acceptable for Louis to have affairs, but not with his sister-in-law. Such an affair (if there was more than a friendship) was viewed as incestuous as having an affair with your actual sister. The scandal was just too much for even Louis. The solution was simple: create a diversion. Enter Louise de la Valliere (nicknamed ‘Petite’) — the unknowing beard to Louis’ indiscretions. But while Louis was trying to throw his mother off the scent, something strange happened. He fell in love with the beard.
Usually, Louise de la Valliere is portrayed as the perpetually teary-eyed, love-sick mistress better suited for a life in the convent than the role of Maitrise-en-titre. In Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland, Petite is no wallflower passively soaking up the Sun King’s attention, but a high-spirited idealists with several alluring talents. She was rumored to be the most beautiful dancer at court despite an injury that forced her to walk with a limp. Probably most impressive, was her skill as a horsewoman. It was said that she could ride a Barbary horse bareback by steering it with a single silken cord. The first few chapters of Mistress of the Sun are dedicated to developing Petite's character as a horse tamer. (She is going to need these talents later when she meets Louis). She develops a special bond with a wild stallion named Diablo until the horse runs amok and causes a tragedy to shatter her happy home life. Petite then meets a handsome huntsman in the forest who turns out to be someone who will change her life forever. In the end, Petite proves to be as fearless on a horse as she is in love. This is a story that needs little fabrication and thankfully Gulland fills in the blanks without distorting the real history behind her characters. And although this is an adult novel, it will also appeal to teens who love romance with a twist of equestrian lore.
As author of the Josephine trilogies, Sandra Gulland’s greatest strength is that she goes beyond weaving great love stories. In her usual meticulous attention to historical details, we also get a glimpse into the opulent court of Louis XIV and the superstitions that governed the era. Some of my favorite details are the superstitious medical beliefs surrounding childbirth. Examples: Enemas were used to widen the birth canal. ouch! Infants born on the third day after the new moon rarely lived. And my personal favorite postpartum treatment - a layer of St. John’s Wort oil followed by a thick rabbitskin lain over the belly. Perhaps other readers will just get swept along in the romance. To me, these little bits of historical trivia are like having a delicious feast that you know won’t make you fat.
This month, I will be giving away a copy of Mistress of the Sun to two lucky readers. All subscribers of the monthly Raucous Royals Newsletter are automatically entered to win. If you are not a subscriber, than you can subscribe here.