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Book review: “The Rivals of Versailles”

It’s time to take part in another virtual book tour with France Book Tours! I’ve taken part in a few of these now. You can read my previous reviews and related blog posts here.

Keep reading to find out more about the book tour itself, about the novel and its author, or jump straight to my review. There are some spoilers in the review, although I’ve tried not to go into much detail, but you may wish to read the book first.

Sally Christie On Tour: The Rivals Of Versailles

The Rivals of Versailles Banner

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Tuesday, April 5
Review + Giveaway Interview at American Girls Art Club in Paris

Wednesday, April 6
Review + Excerpt + Giveaway at The Reading Queen

Thursday, April 7
Review + Giveaway at An Accidental Blog

Friday, April 8
Review + Guest-Post + Giveaway at A Holland Reads

Sunday, April 10
Review at The Victorian Librarian

Monday, April 11
Review + Giveaway at Book Nerd

Tuesday, April 12
Review at Bookramblings

Review + Giveaway at LibriAmoriMiei

Wednesday, April 13
Review + Excerpt + Giveaway at Impressions In Ink

Thursday, April 14
Review + Giveaway at Words And Peace

The Rivals of Versailles

By Sally Christie

Publisher: Atria Books/Simon and Schuster

Publication date: : April 5, 2016
Page numbers: 448 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

ISBN: 978-1501102998

Source: Free ebook received from the author via in exchange for a fair and unbiased review, as part of a virtual book tour on France Book Tours

Author’s website

Goodreads

Buy the bookSimon & Schuster  | Amazon (US)  |  Barnes & Noble   | Books-a-Million  | IndieBound | Amazon (UK)

 

Synopsis

The Rivals of Versailles
In this scandalous follow-up to Sally Christie’s clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles. The year is 1745. Marie-Anne, the youngest of the infamous Nesle sisters and King Louis XV’s most beloved mistress, is gone, making room for the next Royal Favorite.

Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a stunningly beautiful girl from the middle classes. Fifteen years prior, a fortune teller had mapped out young Jeanne’s destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King’s arms.

All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals—including a lustful lady-in-waiting; a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters—she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.

Enigmatic beauty, social climber, actress, trendsetter, patron of the arts, spendthrift, whoremonger, friend, lover, foe. History books may say many things about the famous Marquise de Pompadour, but one thing is clear: for almost twenty years, she ruled France and the King’s heart.

MadamedePompadour

“Madame de Pompadour”, by Francois Boucher (1703-1770). Oil on canvas, 1759. Source: Wallace Collection, London.

My review

I chose to read and review The Rivals of Versailles because it is primarily about a woman I have long admired, Madame de Pompadour. The popular legend is that a gypsy prophesied that the young Jeanne Antoinette de Poisson would later become a lover of the King. This may sound like a myth, but in Jeanne’s accounts in later years, she paid the woman 600 livres for the prophecy. Jeanne, or Reinette (little Queen), as she became known to her family, is something of a heroine of mine, not because she did in fact become a lover of King Louis XV, but because of her commitment to the arts and intellectual affairs, and to French industries such as Sevres porcelain. There are several books written about her; I would recommend Nancy Mitford’s biography, which I have been rereading in preparation for writing this review.

In recent years – well, I say recent, but it is in fact 10 years!! How can this be? – Doctor Who included an episode called The Girl in the Fireplacesaid girl being Madame de Pompadour. It’s one of the outstanding episodes of the whole programme, and Sophia Myles was perfect in the role, bringing everything to the character that I could have wanted: bravery, intelligence, poise, glamour, elegance. I cannot recommend highly enough that you read the (sadly now-defunct) Television Without Pity recap of the episode; it’s a beautiful piece of writing. Just watch the episode first.

Back to The Rivals of Versailles; overall, I definitely enjoyed it. The story opens with a brief setting of the scene, giving the date and a brief description of the central male and female protagonists, Louis XV and Reinette, on the occasion when their story is said to formally begin. I mention this short introduction because its ponderous tone hints that the story ahead is something serious and tragic, an epic like War and Peace. Given that people tend to find that particular work of literature too daunting, I just wanted to mention this in case anybody gets put off by such thoughts; The Rivals of Versailles is an easy and enjoyable read. (Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I have not read War and Peace).

Christie does a great job of writing as the character of Reinette, who tells her own story, in her own voice, from the first chapter. It is a particularly effective tool when it comes to introducing Reinette to the otherworld of Versailles, as we are outsiders together, Reinette as the bourgeoise Parisienne, and us coming from another time and place. The story begins with the gypsy predicting the little girl’s future as the lover of a king.  I have already mentioned how it is not certain that this story is true. Reinette’s own looks, charm, and talents, and their own ambitions, may be all that was needed to put the idea into the heads of her champions, notably Charles Le Normant de Tournehem (here called Uncle Norman), in addition to their own ambition and desire to succeed. I was very pleased to see that Reinette’s intellectual future and her talents as a performer were given proper attention, as the book makes clear that she has been educated at a convent, and that her education is to continue under the guidance of Uncle Norman, not just in the refinements of dancing and singing, but in history, geography, and presumably other related topics. I did like, yet was discomfited by, the child mentioning that her history lessons included the history of royal mistresses. It’s a nice hint that the gypsy’s prophecy came true, but it’s also uncomfortably indicative of “grooming”, a word with deeply unpleasant connotations these days (I haven’t looked into the word’s history yet). Fortunately, Reinette was lucky enough not to be put into any man’s bed while still a child; she didn’t marry until she was nineteen. The dancing lesson in Chapter 2 also hints at the condemnation and attacks which Reinette will experience at Versaille, the puns about her surname (Poisson) and the snobbery of nobles about her bourgeois roots. But we also see how she puts a mask on to feign indifference to the insults, how she responds with charm, as her mother taught her, and how, in private, she cries about the way she is treated. We see her becoming the woman she will need to be to survive Versailles.

The mistresses who follow her are mostly of a type, younger and and lacking her intellect. They are still fully-formed characters, and Christie doesn’t slight them in favour of Reinette, giving them their chance to speak, and to act. You have to feel sorry for them, I think, as they are used by all around them, and cast aside. The final mistress who features, Marie-Anne, is the only one with whom I struggled, because I found it hard to believe that anybody could be quite that dim. I do wonder if Christie exaggerated her for comic relief following the much darker Act IV; the letters from Madame de Pompadour on weighty issues of war further emphasise her superiority to this girl, and before her story had really begun, I felt certain that the latest mistress simply could not survive Versailles and its intrigues.

Structurally, the book is divided into five acts, each of which are a mixture of prose, in the voice of one of the mistresses of Louis XV, and letters, in the voices of many people in La Pompadour’s life, both male and female. I enjoyed the use of letters because they contain so many details about life at Versailles, about French culture, and about life throughout Europe, in wartime and in peace, that could have been awkwardly forced into the first person narrative. The voices of the various characters in their letters are convincing, in particular that of the Cardinal Richelieu, who is so delightfully snide and insulting towards Reinette that I very clearly heard Tim Curry’s voice in my head as I read them. Tim Curry played Richelieu in an otherwise rather mediocre film of The Three Musketeers in 1993, and he was campy villainy personified. Having settled into this pattern, I was somewhat disconcerted when Act III handed the prose from Madame de Pompadour to a young woman called Rosalie; it definitely took me out of the atmosphere of the story for at least a couple of chapters, which was a shame. Rosalie is such a different character to Reinette that it takes some time to grow accustomed to her, but again Christie gives the character such life. Richelieu brings his mockery to bear yet again, but here it emphasises Rosalie’s lack of education/intelligence; she is very different from Reinette, and, in her inner monologue, utterly convinced that she is better in every way than her predecessor in Louis XV’s bed. Madame de Pompadour retains her control of the storyline in the background, and while we see her from a rival’s perspective, we hear from her as the sole writer of letters in this act, and she speaks in the entr’acte which follows. The plan which she puts into action in this small section is brutal, and she realises just how brutal here. It must have been a difficult section to write, and Christie has done well – she shows a harsh side to Reinette, whose focus is clearly on her own survival, and that of Louis. Is this the effect that Versailles has on its inhabitants? The following acts, IV and V, follow the same structure, and, despite its being a little jarring when the principal speaker first changed, it’s a very successful way of showing the different women who come to rival Reinette, and how she responds to their growing influence over the King. Act VI, the final act, belongs again to Reinette, who ends the book just as she opened it, providing balance to the intervening years.

I would have liked there to have been an appendix identifying and discussing the real-life characters in the novel proper, including those only mentioned in passing. This would have made it easier to appreciate and understand their part in French society. Similarly, appendices giving more information on books, plays, places, and customs would have been useful.  Versailles in itself is a complicated world to navigate, and while the main text does give some explanation, it cannot of course give all the details, as that would ruin the storyline. There are points in the book where I feel that I am missing an allusion , as when the Austrian ambassador calls Marie-Anne “the Magnificent Vashti”; I’m not convinced that it’s not as much of a compliment as it first seems. At the very least, I would have liked to have seen a bibliography printed in the book. Christie has clearly done her research, and should show it off in the book, not just on her website.

I enjoyed, and recommend, The Rivals of Versailles. It’s an entertaining read about real life characters who interest me, but, unlike a great deal of historical fiction, the research stands up in the novel There is not the utterly bizarre, and unnecessary, fictionalising of lives which are interesting enough on their own. Yes, ReignI’m talking about you. I wish I could have read the first in the trilogy, The Sisters of Versailles, the timeline of which crosses over with this book, during Reinette’s childhood, before this book; she mentions the sisters in passing, and it later becomes clear that they are still present at Versailles despite their deaths. The third book, The Enemies of Versailles, will be told by another intriguing woman beloved of Louis XV, the Comtesse du Barry, and by Louis’ daughter Madame Adelaide. “Enemies” is definitely the right word!

About the Author

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie Sally Christie is the author of The Sisters of Versailles.
She was born in England and grew up around the world,
attending eight schools in three different languages.
She spent most of her career working in international development and currently lives in Toronto.

Learn more about the sisters and the mistresses in the Versailles trilogy on her website.
Become a fan to hear about her next novels!

Visit her Facebook Page

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6 Responses

  1. thanks for your fantastic review and all the extra references. Yes, if you have a minute, it is definitely worth reading book 1. Christie also uses at the end of each chapter.
    I personally liked the change of narrator with Rosalie, i’ll explain in my own review on Thursday. Emma at FBT


  2. […] April 10 Review at The Victorian LibrarianMonday, April 11 Review + Giveaway at Book […]


  3. […] Sunday, April 10 Review at The Victorian Librarian […]


  4. Yes, a superb review! such a pleasure to follow your thoughts as they wind through the story. And I cheered (almost aloud) when you mentioned that touching episode of Doctor Who, the Girl in the Fireplace, a special favorite with the *best* of the recent Doctors. He was really smitten with her, and you make the case well for the qualities of mind in Mme de Pompadour that likewise attracted the court and the king, but more important here, new readers of her life, in Christie’s fiction. And thank you for including the Boucher painting! I’m off to pin it now!



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