Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.
Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.
Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.
Publisher and Release Date: Atria Books, September 1, 2015
Time and Setting: Versailles, France, and the French countryside, 1730-1799
Genre: Historical fiction
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars
Review by Maria Almaguer
In a time before the French revolution and the Reign of Terror, Sally Christie writes a sweeping saga of the five real-life de Nesle sisters, four of whom served as mistress to King Louis XV.
The dramatic and romantic lives of five women in early eighteenth-century France comes alive in this melancholy story. Louise, Pauline, Hortense, Diane, and Marie-Anne, though convent raised and educated, are truly cruel to one another. Born to a life of privilege and wealth, they play out their fears, the struggles for power and survival, and their pleasures at the palace of Versailles in the court of King Louis XV.
Everyone’s manners are impeccable but no one talks straight: their words are sinewy and slippy like eels. The courtiers play word games with double and sometimes triple entendres; compliments are not compliments yet they are; meaning depends not on the words but on who is speaking, and about what. Everyone is extremely assiduous in telling other unpleasant truths.
Ms. Christie loosely bases her fictional account on real people and events. She tells her tale in alternating letters between all the sisters as well as chapters told in the third person giving the reader each sister’s point of view. We feel Louise’s fears and sadness, are appalled by Pauline and Marie-Anne’s dissatisfaction and stratagems, smile at Diane’s consistent good humor and silliness, and admire Hortense’s calm and orderly life.
Hortense, the middle and only sister to not become the king’s mistress, opens and closes the book in 1799. She is an old woman reflecting on her life and her complex relationships with all her sisters. Hortense is the most traditional, marrying for love, having children, and remaining pious and respectable throughout her long life.
The eldest sister, Louise, is the first to go to Versailles when she becomes lady-in-waiting to the queen, Louis’ Polish wife. At first, the married relationship between king and queen is faithful but when Louis eventually becomes bored, the political machinations of court persuade Louise to become his mistress.
Everyone here is most astonishingly free and very few people remain faithful to or even cordial with their spouses. Most have lovers, sometimes even multiple lovers at once.
But when one is surrounded by vice, that which shocks quickly becomes normal.
For Louise, unfortunately, it becomes a lifelong love for a powerful, fickle, and ultimately weak man. But when Louis eventually tires of Louise, he replaces her with her sister, Pauline, who seduces and maneuvers her way from the convent to Versailles and power.
Louise is the kindest hearted of the de Nesle sisters and has dreams of happiness in love and marriage. Her disappointments in her romantic relationships and with her sisters are a far cry from the life she hoped for herself.
Pauline and Marie-Anne are the manipulative and spiteful sisters in their power struggles to become mistress to a king. The way they plot and lure the king away from their rivals is distasteful and unpleasant. I was reminded of another sly and scheming Pauline, the woman who aggressively drew Ernest Hemingway away from his first wife, Hadley.
Diane (who was actually Louis’ first mistress in real life but is his fourth mistress here), is a lighthearted and loving soul, a plump woman who adores eating and who gets along with all her sisters.
Though this novel is riveting and the history rich, I couldn’t help but feel sad as I read this story of greed and superficiality. Ms. Christie writes of each sister’s inner thoughts, of their plans and schemes, and conquests. If one cannot count one’s sisters as allies, who can one trust? Each of the sisters learn the secrets of men and the power of their own seductive wiles. In short, they learn how to please men to get what they want.
The power that comes from being desired.
And what of King Louis XV? He struggles with his religion even as he beds one sister after another. We get nothing from his point of view but, then again, this is not his story. The lives of kings and their mistresses–indeed, of men and their mistresses–is nothing new. Ms. Christie gives us the feelings of women in a specific time in history and their complicated relationship dynamic.
History is as much a character in the novel as the sisters. The elaborate and beautiful fashions, the custom of wearing powder and beauty marks (or not), the rules and etiquette, promiscuity, and power-plays of court life at Versailles are all on display in rich and descriptive detail. The arts and politics of the age too, are well represented: the music of Francois Couperin, the king’s adviser, Cardinal de Fleury, exerts his influence, the protagonists are entertained Moliere’s naughty play, Tartuffe, and there is talk of having Voltaire for a visit.
The reader also gets a great sense of the revolution to come. The poor and the peasants pass through the sisters’ lives, but are mostly ridiculed and not taken too seriously. Only Louise, with her sensitive feelings, manages to show compassion and sympathy.
In her Author’s Note, Ms. Christie reveals she first planned on writing a collective nonfiction biography. But then the voices of the sisters inspired her to embellish and enrich their story in a more colorful and emotional fictional account.
I recommend this book for readers who enjoy historical fiction sagas, court life in eighteenth-century France, and the delicate relationships between sisters.