Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear. Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail. Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters: sweet, naïve Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power. In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.
My Rating: 4½/5 stars
The gardens, the Hall of Mirrors, the Marble Court, the kings and queens, the power and intrigue, the scandal, and the relentless gossip. Welcome to late 18th century (and every other century) Versailles!! For the Nesle sisters, Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, Versailles was both their making and their undoing. At the time, their story wasn’t just well-known, it was quite literally the talk of the town and country yet today, these five women are but a footnote in France’s long history.
In 18th century France (and elsewhere to be fair) it was quite customary for the king and queen to take lovers.* In fact, taking a lover was all but a sporting event and any time a king or queen showed even the slightest interest in warming their bed with someone new, the elite families began vying for the favor. For nearly two decades, one family, the Nesle’s held the distinction of warming the King Louis XV’s bed. Of the five sisters, four were to become the King’s mistress, a position that was both envied and reviled not only by rival families but among themselves as well.
When Louise Nesle crawled into the King’s bed, she did so both reluctantly and secretly. For seven years, Louis XV was a devoted and caring husband to his wife, the Queen. As with so many royal marriages, as time passed the affection they once felt for one another cooled and the King began looking for a new sexual partner. Though already married and in service to the Queen, Louise Nesle was pegged as being the perfect candidate for Louis and so she was, for more than six years. Inexplicably, the affair between the King and Louise was kept absolutely secret for almost the entire length of their association. The secrecy must have certainly be a large part of the attraction because once Louise’s identity became common knowledge, the King began to look for a new partner.
If the accounts and portrayal of Pauline Nesle are accurate, she was indeed a soulless bitch with nothing but her own interests in mind. Pauline set out to seduce the King and with her quick wit, intelligence, and sharp tongue she was easily able to replace her sister in the King’s bed. Pauline was not the most beautiful of the sisters but was likely the most intelligent and knew it would take both her mind and body to satisfy the King and keep her in his good graces. Pauline acquainted herself with the King’s political affairs as much as she did with his private affairs. She was shrewd and confident, cold and cruel with most people (including her still resent sister, Louise) which earned her the King’s respect and the Court’s hatred.
While Pauline openly and shrewdly played the mistress game, the youngest of the Nesle sisters, Marie-Anne played her hand much closer to the vest and by the time she became Louis’s lover, everyone’s head was spinning and wondering just where this sister came from. Marie-Anne was widowed at a very young age and found herself yet again at the mercy of others and their whims. Determined never to be at the mercy of anyone every again, Marie-Anne took the opportunity to serve as the King’s mistress but only if certain conditions were met. For as heartless and cruel as her sister Pauline was, Marie-Anne had her outpaced by leaps and bounds. Marie-Anne didn’t just play the political game, she excelled at it. She called some of the King’s most trusted men allies and she knew how to work the King to her greatest advantage. She banished or had banished anyone (including her sister, Louise) she saw as a threat and went to great lengths (going with him to the
battlefield) to ensure the King’s attention was always focused on her. In fact, court gossip said Marie-Anne invited her sister, Diane into bed with she and the King and required Diane take her place (thus making her the 4th Nesle sister to bed the King) with the King when she, Marie-Anne was unable to bed him herself. Marie-Anne was as devious and cunning, ruthless and intelligent as she was young and beautiful. She was quite literally everything the King wanted in a mistress.
The Bottom Line: The Sisters of Versailles is a long and winding tale of four women who sacrificed everything, including their relationships with one another to serve their King. Sally Christie has taken on a monumental task in trying to weave a story around a family whose history is so poorly documented. Christie relies on Hortense, the only one of the five sisters not to sleep with the King to tell the tale of her family. Through a series of letters between the women and chapters told from each of the sister’s alternating perspective, the court of Louis XV comes alive. Christie’s writing style makes it so easy to become attached to the Nesle sisters, to feel sorry them, to champion their efforts, to ridicule their choices, and even hate them on occasion. This is historical fiction at its best and I found myself caught up in the Nesle sister’s story from the very beginning. I can only hope the two succeeding installments of The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy is as engaging as The Sisters of Versailles.