Review: The French Mistress by Susan Holloway Scott

For the past few days I’ve been just gobbling up Susan Nagel’s Marie Therese: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter (and I usually find all non-fiction too boring to be bothered with!), horrified and well, thrilled by the drama of the French Revolution and the impact it had on the French royal family and later intrigued as Marie-Therese stood up to Napoleon during his Hundred Days return to France, even after the newly returned king her uncle had fled the country. I’ve even started dreaming about her! So it’s definitely a wonderful introduction to a time period I’ve viewed with suspicion before — the French Revolution, too complicated and popular I used to think! But now I see the drama and excitement and think I am being sucked in. Best of all, the life of Marie-Therese combines the beauty and glamour of Versailles through the horrors of the French Revolution, the drama of Napoleon and the modernizing changes at the start of the 19th century. She even lived in England while in exile from France and was friends with the Prince of Wales and read Fanny’s Burney’s novels! (and maybe even some Jane Austen, who knows…) My previous prejudice that I preferred 19th century history strictly in the Victorian era is changing, as well as my dislike (or ahem, really just ignorance) of the 18th century…

That aside. (I couldn’t resist enthusing!) As mentioned in my last post, Susan Holloway Scott’s novel The French Mistress put me back on track with my French love and a new time period to enjoy, so I thought I’d give it a proper review. Louise de Keroualle was one of Charles II’s mistresses and has traditionally got some of the worst press of any of them, partly because she was French. Scott attempts to see her as a real person, not a villain, and to understand what her motivations may have been.

She starts with her life in France, at the court of Louis XIV as maid of honour to Charles II’s beloved sister Henriette (whom he nicknamed Minette), who was married to Louis XIV’s brother. Eventually Louise visits England with Henriette and meets Charles, later to return as a French spy in the bedroom sent by Louis XIV to remind Charles of the French-English alliance that had been made in secret and to encourage him to convert to Catholicism after the death of Henriette. Louise is more well-bred than Charles’s other mistresses and provides a place of refined calm for him and in the end, was rumoured to be one of the people who brought him to a deathbed Catholic conversion.

The book was well written and largely enjoyable, at first a bit confusing as various scheming courtiers and politicians were introduced and at the end a whiz as the history zoomed by too quickly but overall I enjoyed seeing a more human side to someone history has characterized as manipulative, greedy and vain. Louise de Keroualle may have been those things but then there may have been reasons why (there was constant competition between the king’s mistresses for his attention, she wanted to make sure she was provided for after the king was dead, she was more sensitive than many of his other more boisterous mistresses and cried more easily, she was in a foreign country and not at home or welcomed there, etc) and also obviously, Charles was somehow still attracted to her despite the liability of having a French Catholic in his bed.

Here’s a section describing the Grand Canal at Versailles, which made me want to leave Restoration England and head over to France:

The canal was an enormous rectilinear pond, crossed by a second, lesser one, that the king had had created in the chateau’s park. The canal served several purposes: not only did it contribute to a pleasing, glittering vista from the chateau’s windows, but it also acted as a kind of reservoir, collecting and storing the water that was pumped to the many fountains throughout the gardens and park. In addition, it was a place of amusement, the setting for elaborate fireworks and mock sea battles, as well as a collection of gilded gondolas, much in demand for flirtations, that had been sent to the king as a gift from the Doge of Venice.

On this particular evening, the canal offered a pleasant retreat for a promenade. The wide, flat expanse of water made the air seem more agreeable, and the rustle of the evening breezes throught the tops of the tall Italian poplars was more sweet than any choir.

I could just imagine an elegantly breezy summer evening’s walk there.

I’m excited to be reading more historical fiction and learning about more history in general, it was part of my university major and as a teen I quite enjoyed a lot of historical fiction and often imagined writing some of my own someday. (A Grade 6 teacher would give us Social Studies assignments along the lines of ‘imagine you are an 18th century Acadian being forced by the British to leave your homeland. Write a diary about your feelings and experiences’, which also inspired my interest in writing about history.) Ever since I left university a few years ago, however, I’ve been trying to read a lot of literary fiction and some of the more challenging classics, partly to prove I wasn’t just a naive romantic daydreamer, I had serious literary cred! Not to say that they weren’t good books and I’m glad I took the time to widen what I read and my understanding of different types of books, but I kept wondering where my type of books were, that were smart but also actually entertaining and sometimes even gasp! easier to read! The fact is that I’m still a romantic, I love learning more about the past and I’m tired of the literary snobbishness I often see displayed towards anything that’s ‘too genre’. (Yes, I’ve also sometimes been guilty of this!)

I used to think that some historical fiction presented an overly romanticized idealized version of the past as all whirling gowns, velvet ribbons and dangerous drama and intrigue (although that’s pretty much exactly what I love in Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence), but lately I’ve been thinking that even ‘literary historical fiction’ (by A.S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, etc) is romanticized. Although it tends to tip in favour of romantic angst rather than romantic glamour. I loved The English Patient and The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, both sad and romantically angsty portrayals of WW2, but after reading British writers from the time period, I began to see that maybe they were less concerned with their emotions and poetic lost loves and more concerned with surviving… I used to think this was reason enough to only read the classics written in the time period I was interested in, that only they could portray everything accurately. This could be so and yet in the past I was put off from studying French history partly because 19th century French novels are so bleak and pessimistic! (I do like the realism of Madame Bovary, but trying Balzac and Stendhal was a sad, sad unfinished slog.) But as The French Mistress shows, sometimes contemporary accounts from the past have their own bias. Louise de Keroualle  was probably vilified in history because she was, like Marie Antoinette, an outsider, a hated French Catholic. People didn’t care about who she was, they stopped at what she represented. Historical fiction can enjoyably, with imagination and yes, romance, bring a more balanced look at the past. It can also give a voice to women’s history, their experiences and views, which has long been overlooked or belittled by the men who wrote history. Now that women write about the women of the past, we can find intelligent and interesting heroines of our own.

10 thoughts on “Review: The French Mistress by Susan Holloway Scott

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Can I say how excited I am that you’re enjoying the Nagel? It sounds wonderful and I can’t wait to hear more about it!

    Your description of Grade 6 Social Studies assignments made me smile – I can’t count how many of those I did over the years. I was very fond of killing off entire families during sea voyages in my stories. Morbid, morbid child.

    As far as historical fiction goes, I am and have always been a fan (though I primarily use it to supplement nonfiction reading). Novels written at the time are always excellent reads as well but only represent certain viewpoints (as you note). And as for WW2 novels, goodness knows there were enough sappy, sentimental novels written at the time. They might not have survived long, might not have been deemed ‘worthy’ or ‘serious’ enough for reprints, but they were certainly there. And, as with anything published during a war, it’s difficult to forget that literature is a form of propoganda – could there be a more appropriate theme than survival?

    • Carolyn says:

      I’ve finished the book now, so I’ll probably review it soon, although it left so much for me to think about I’m not sure how I’ll be able to write about it all.

      I also remember writing about crossing the prairies in a covered wagon (our class played the very old computer game Oregon Trail too, where half of us would die of cholera, oh those days!) and had one story set in WW2 where I gave my character a French lover. I thought the word boyfriend was too modern for WW2 somehow!

      That’s a very interesting point about literature as propaganda during war and one that I hadn’t thought of (although I was thinking of something like Henrietta’s War as an example of a less emotional, written at the time WW2 story, although since it was originally written to be published in the paper, maybe there was a desire to keep it on the bright uplifting side of things). When I was studying Shakespeare in university, I was definitely struck by the difference between Laurence Olivier’s Henry V made in 1944 which was very sunny and brave and England is a champ and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 war is hell in the mud version.

  2. Nymeth says:

    I have the same bias (or ignorance :P) when it comes to the 18th and early 19th centuries. I ought to work to change that, really.

    I find what you said about the differences between historical fiction and contemporary accounts so interesting. That’s the reason why I like to read both, really. Take, for example, the Victorians and sexuality. There was so much more going on than contemporary writers could acknowledge. Historical fiction writers can afford to talk about things that the Victorians themselves couldn’t, and thus offer us a portrait of the period that is truthful even though it could never have existed at the time.

    • Carolyn says:

      A really great historical novel I read a few years ago about the end of the 18th century is Life Mask by Emma Donoghue, about an actress, the married earl who’s waiting for his invalid wife to die so he can marry her and their friend who gossip says is a lesbian. I found it to be very realistic and reminded me a bit of Sarah Waters. So that might be a starting point for the period.

      Yes, that’s true. And reminds me of all the wonderful classic and historical Victorian novels I’ve still to read!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks for coming by so often, Susan, it was nice to get to meet you a bit. 🙂 I have to say, after reading your book, I now get annoyed when I read about Louise de Keroualle in other books like Sex with Kings and Royal Affairs and they portray her in a completely negative light while Nell Gwynne gets all the praise! Of course I haven’t read your books about Nell or Barbara Castlemaine yet, then I might be completely torn. 😉

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