July 13, 2008

Tribute to an Unlikely Mistress


Sandra Gulland discusses her creation of Mistress of the Sun

   The author of the Josephine B. trilogy, tells the life of an obscure and endearing heroine for her most recent novel, Mistress of the Sun (HarperCollins, June 2008).

   Louise de la Vallière was a contradictory character unsuited to court life, yet against all odds she became the mistress of Louis XIV, King of France from 1661 to 1715. Louise was a rustic tomboy who rode a wild horse in the countryside, yet spent her early years contemplating God in a convent. She feared God, yet gave in to human desires. When her lowly family maneuvered her into the new king’s court, she found a realm where her innocence and intellect were a liability. Her friend Athénaïs explained that in The Sun King’s world, self-interest is behind every banquet and every dance:

“Lucrative is the magical word: everything turns on it. It is the magical cipher that makes all things clear … The King’s regard is highly coveted … A woman of the court, even a princess, will do anything to get his—friendship.”

   Yet Louise’s innocence captured the king's heart. Wanting nothing from him but love, she became The Sun King's official mistress, and the two experienced a brief, affectionate love before the realities of duty hardened the king and forced Louise to make a difficult choice: To retain a shadow of The Sun King’s love through cunning and deceit, or to retreat into quiet obscurity.

   Sandra Gulland’s prose is witty and engaging, and her greatest accomplishment in Mistress of the Sun is realism. She does not write a fairytale, nor does she shy from the earthy realities facing women of Louise’s era: childbirth, contraception, gossip and ruined reputations. Most importantly, she convincingly portrays the thoughts of a rustic, pious woman who rose to prominence and fell to ill repute, and all the while maintained a quiet integrity.

Gulland answered questions about the creation of Mistress of the Sun at the Bellevue Library, in Washington state.


Inkwell Review: Why did you choose to write about Louise de la Vallière?

Sandra Gulland: I finished that first part of Josephine Bonaparte's story, and I said, “Let’s take a break from the Napoleonic Era, and I’m going to spend a year just writing a rough draft of Louise de la Vallière's story." Her story is not very well known, not even in France, but what intrigued me was that she was described as a very timid person, something of a wall flower, yet she was ferocious on horseback, and quite the hunter. It was said she could outride and outhunt the king and his men. Now, for a woman in the 17th century to be as amazing an athlete as the king was incredible. Clearly she was not a timid woman, and clearly she was spending most of her time in the stable, and on horseback. She walked with a limp due to a riding accident. She was really looked down upon. She was an athletic woman, a horse-crazy tomboy. She was a philosopher and intellectual.
   The other thing that intrigued me about her was that she was a very devote, good Catholic, yet she became a fallen woman. How did that happen? How did she justify it?

Audience Question: Can you talk about your research?

SG: I spent eight years researching this book. A lot of that was researching the period in general, and researching the different characters. I consulted experts in the field. I read biographies as well as 17th century guides to manners, to midwifery, to horsemanship, 17th century sex guides [audience laughs]. All of those things, just to get a sense of the atmosphere of the era. It took quite a bit of time to understand the 17th century mindset.
   I also did experiential research. For example, I spent a week on horseback and, I also saw what it would be like entering into a castle courtyard. It was wonderful experience. Since Louise and many of the people in court were religious, I spent a week in a silent monastery. Site research is also very important. I actually stood in Petite’s barn where she grew up.

IR: What draws you to write about the French nobility?

SG: [Pauses for a few seconds] That’s a question I ask myself. There’s something very fanciful about French history, something very theatrical, very passionate philosophically. It's unique to France. Other histories are more somber. I always think of this painting showing foreign ambassadors paying homage to The Sun King, and they’re all in black, wearing capes and bowing, and there’s The Sun King covered in pink lace and ribbons and bows, and he’s just this peacock. And when I think of that image, I think, "This is what I love about French History." The Sun King was an excellent king, he was excellent militarily, but every afternoon there was a hunting party, and every night there were theatrical performances and concerts and balls. He was also a dancer, and the dances were very balletic. He starred in many of the court performances.

IR: He was definitely flamboyant; he played Ceres in one of the plays in the novel.

SG: Yes. That I found online, because you can discover who played what in which act.

IR: Is there a tension between making characters in historical novels interesting to modern readers, while keeping their behavior historically accurate?

SG: It’s very challenging. It was especially challenging in writing this book because Louise becomes a nun. For her, this is a fulfillment of her true self, and to have the modern readers applaud that was difficult. To have the modern reader understand where she was coming from and how important this was and how it was a victory. That was my challenge, because we’re not in a society that says, “Hurray! You ran off and became a nun.” It’s not our ethic. Plus, she had to leave her children. I had to make it clear to the reader how narrow her choices were, and that’s very difficult.

IR: Do you have any future novels planned?

SG: Yes, I’m thinking about it. This is the very first time that I haven’t known exactly what I would be writing about next, although I thought I would write about Athénaïs. I might yet, but having been so close to Louise, now I’m not so sure I’m ready to do that. I’m more likely to write about the king’s cousin.

IR: Given a choice, would you choose to live in our age or the age of The Sun King?

SG: Ours, for sure. That’s one thing I came to appreciate, is how lucky we are. For one thing, just reading details about the life of a woman and midwifery. I’m so happy to live in this age, but I would love to be in the court of The Sun King for a day.


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