Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Drama-Free Vacation Read

During the Christmas season it's important to choose just the right book to while away the holidays.  I tend to pick fiction for December in the same way as I would for a beach vacation; something with a good plot that is not controversial or jarring.  For me Christmastime provides enough drama, so I seek refuge in some well-written, safe fiction.  With this in mind, I chose to read Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland.  

Previously I had read the first book in her Josephine B. trilogy which focuses on the life of Napoleon's wife, Josephine, so I knew what to expect from Gulland.  I will return to the other two novels in the trilogy at some point, but Mistress of the Sun called to me on this occasion.  Gulland again follows the life of a woman romantically attached to a powerful Frenchman by centering her narrative around Louise de la Valliere, the famous mistress of King Louis XIV.  Louis (aka The Sun King) is best known for his opulent lifestyle and personal charisma, and his fidelity (for the most part) to Louise struck me as very interesting considering the decadence of his surroundings.  The author goes out of her way to describe the powerful effect Louis had upon the women of the court, mentioning on a number of occasions how women often fainted in his presence.  

I think that Gulland succeeds in making the romance between Louis and Louise believable by making Louise's personal narrative compelling.  Her seduction of the most powerful man in the land is a bit of an underdog story.  Physically speaking, she is at a bit of a disadvantage.  As a child, she broke her ankle in equestrian accident and it was not set properly, leaving her with a permanent limp.  This limp forced her to wear corrective boots which never successfully correct her walk.  Her figure has little to recommend it either.  In a time where a voluptuous body is the ideal, she is thin and small-breasted. Also, her family fortune is gone after the sudden death of her father, so she is left without a dowry.  While she spends her time entertaining the king, her unknowing mother constantly attempts to scrape up enough money to enhance her marriage prospects.  

Another aspect of Louise's personality which makes her unlikely to attract a king, is her tomboyish love of horsemanship and hunting.  She is used to the outdoors and can hold her own with the men of the court, whereas the other ladies usually just put in a small cameo appearance.  This quality initially attracts Louis, and their mutual love of hunting and horses brings them together.  I was a little surprised to find that there is a little bit of a feminist message ingrained in the story of a mistress.  Ultimately the book reaffirms the personal power of a woman who knows who she is. Louise's strength stems from her ability to look at her situation unflinchingly, and plan accordingly. She knows her role as a mistress and when she feels trapped in this position, she acts in order to gain her own independence and happiness.  

I'm not sure if you can sense this, but I have a personal bias in favour of royal mistresses. This is in complete contrast to the way that I feel about modern-day mistresses, who I feel have more responsibility for the suffering of wives.  For the most part, women courted by kings had little choice but to submit to their desires.  Families pressured them to woo royals so that they could get more titles, political power, land, etc. and there isn't much a girl could do to convince them otherwise.  Thus I found the story of Valliere somewhat refreshing.  She did not seduce the king for any political or monetary reason, but rather, enjoyed his company and was physically attracted to him.  

The other thing that I found refreshing about the book is it's blend of readability with historical facts.  Throughout the pages of the book it is evident that Gulland has done a great deal of historical research is preparation to writing this novel, but the reader is never beaten over the head with facts.  The plot and the historical content work together seamlessly in a manner which is difficult to achieve.  I don't know how many novels are thin on historical details but good in terms of story, or vise versa.  It's story pulls the reader in without being a lightweight guilty pleasure.  A great book for those looking to escape the drama of the holiday season.     

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