Some years ago I read and enjoyed Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte, beginning with The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. After finishing the trilogy I sort of lost track of Gulland and only recently realized that I’d missed her 2008 release, Mistress of the Sun. Fortunately a quick trip to the library was able to remedy this oversight.
Mistress of the Sun is a well-crafted and engaging historical novel about Louise de la Valliere, one of the mistresses of Louis XIV. While the book gives a wonderful sense of life in the early years of the Sun King, when Versailles was still a hunting lodge, the most interesting part is the wonderfully detailed development of Louises’ character. She is a contradiction: a devout and rather reserved young woman who becomes the mistress of one of the most flamboyant kings in history; a court lady who was renowned for her skill, not just at horseback-riding and hunting but at such exotic tricks as standing up on the back of a galloping horse.
I’ve long contended that one of the best things a historical novelist can do — better than a historian, in a way — is make a character, especially a relatively minor one like a king’s mistress– leap off the pages of history and into the reader’s mind as a real, three-dimensional person, I particularly love it when authors can do this with women’s lives, since so many absolutely fascinating women of the past lived and died with so little known of their lives — and what is known, is usually known only because of the woman’s association with a powerful man. In showing Louise’s rise to power and her inevitable fall, Sandra Gulland has been able to do just that — give life and voice to one of history’s silent women. If you enjoy good solid historical fiction, you will like this book and I recommend it highly.