In this second book of the trilogy after The Sisters of Versailles, in The Rivals of Versailles Sally Christie has again delved into the viper's pit that was Louis XV's court to tell a compelling story. Jeanne Poisson, the first middle class mistress to ever become the official favorite, is better known to history as the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the most powerful women of her time. Jeanne's transformation from fresh and innocent in her love for the king to the elegant and astute woman it was dangerous to make an enemy of is carefully drawn in these pages. As she is transformed from a simple girl of non-noble birth into a force to be reckoned with and the most important person in Louis' court, she abandons her wish for everyone to like her and grows guarded and self-contained. Her early years with Louis as his mistress are fraught enough but when her health becomes too poor for her to share his bed any longer, she must find another way to stay in his favor and not lose the power and position she has worked so hard to attain. It is really when she has become no more than a platonic friend, mother-figure, and political adviser to Louis that her intelligence and savvy shine.
A woman who started as a pawn to be placed in the King's bed by his advisers becomes the grand master herself, orchestrating the rise and fall of those in the King's inner circle and even those who followed her in his bed. The Marquise makes political decisions, comforts Louis as his subjects grow discontented with his extravagances and his government, and finds a way of feeding Louis' prodigious sexual appetites, all while looking after her own interests as well. Comparing herself to a duck, serene on the surface but paddling madly underneath, the Marquise wants nothing so much as to stay by Louis' side at Versailles and she will sacrifice much, including her own self-esteem, to do so. In her almost twenty years with Louis, she endures the humiliation of being replaced in his bed by younger and younger mistresses, including three, Rosalie, Morhise, and Marie-Anne, who threaten her position the most but she is never replaced in his heart and mind and she survives all attempts at her removal.
The novel is narrated by the Marquise de Pompadour herself and by the three young women who try, in turn, to supplant her. Letters from the Marquise to friends and enemies, highlighting not only the dangers she personally faces, her recognition of the rising malcontent of the citizenry, and her continuing feelings for Louis, but also the impressive agility of her mind, are scattered throughout the stories. The tale is carried forward by whichever mistress is in the ascendancy but each and every time, the Marquise triumphs over her rival. Christie has done a good job writing the four women as distinct, each very much her own character. Jeanne is the most complicated and complex character in the novel, both ruthless and kind, sympathetic and scheming. Louis comes off as childish, ruled by his lust, needy, and increasingly dissipated. This daughter of a butcher matures at Versailles far more than does her noble lover. Just as in the first book, there is a constant threat of plots and scheming but the political rumblings outside of the palace are becoming louder, more insistent, and more threatening than they were in the first book. And just as I wrote of that first in the trilogy: "The novel is detailed, full of scandal and intrigue, brimming with betrayal and duplicity." Fans of French history curious about the excesses that led to the French Revolution and the people who either couldn't see the prevailing sentiments or could do nothing at all to change them will find this a fascinating glimpse into not only the machinations within the court but the growing anger, unease, and hostility outside the palace gates.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.