Mistress of the Sun By Sandra Gulland
Mistress of the Sun was a book I had to read as soon as it came out of the box. I knew that everyone coming into the shop would see it on the shelf, and ask "Have you read it? Did you like it?" The answer is yes. And if you are as interested in horses as Sandra Gulland is, and as the heroine of this book is, you will, I am sure, like it even more than I did. Sandra Gulland is the author of a series of books about Josephine Bonaparte that have become hugely successful over the past several years - they are books that I recommend on a regular basis.
They are meticulously researched, every historic detail is absolutely accurate, they are beautifully and intelligently written - they take the reader into a time and place far, far away from our everyday lives, and we learn the history of the time in such a pleasurable manner.
Sandra Gulland started researching and writing about Louis XIV after completing her first novel The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. W- but when she was offered a contract to complete a trilogy about Josephine, Sandra put aside her work on the Sun King and completed the series.
When Sandra was here in Parry Sound to do a reading several years ago she spoke to me about the book she was working on about the Sun King. I had no idea it would be 10 years later before it would be published. Nor, I suspect, did she.
Sandra Gulland is a meticulous researcher - she learned French when writing the Josephine series so that she could read original manuscripts. Every historical detail in her books is perfectly accurate, yet they read as easily as any literary novel - they are plump with history but not dense.
We meet the heroine of Mistress of the Sun in 1650; Louise "Petite" is six years old, living a poor but happy life in the countryside with her parents and brother. She is already horse crazy as some girls are.
It is when she becomes obsessed with a white stallion, that she alone is able to tame, that she realizes she has a particular skill in being able to "gentle" a horse.
I must admit that all the horse content at the beginning of this book caused me some anxiety - I really wanted to like this book!
And soon the novel became less horse focused as Petite grows older and becomes a lady's maid in the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Louis was only six years old when his father died and he became king. He actually began to govern in 1661 at the age of 23. Louis XIV chose the sun as his emblem - associated with the god Apollo, the god of peace and arts.
We also think of the popular image of Apollo as being an extremely handsome man - the sort of man found on the covers of romance novels, and Louis XIV in fact had that reputation as well.
Louis reigned longer than any monarch ever had, until just before his death at the age of 72.
During this time he reformed the administration of his government, his military and the finances of his country. He was also responsible for the rich cultural life of the time - theatre, music, architecture - including the completion of the Louvre, once a royal palace, and for the transformation of his father's hunting lodge, Versailles, into the spectacular palace that hordes of tourists troop through today.
Louis XIV, it turns out, is also a horse lover and it is this mutual passion that first brings Petite and Louis together - and another sort of passion that keeps them together.
He may be the king to his mother, to his wife, and to his country, but he is Louis to Petite.
They begin a passionate love affair when Louis is only 20 and Petite still a teenager. It was certainly not uncommon at that time for kings and other nobility to have both a wife and a mistress and assorted children with both, although there is great secrecy initially in the case of Louis and Petite.
This is a novel full of love affairs, court intrigue and the history of France during the late 1600s and early 1700s. It is very much also about the lives of women at this time - the lack of independence or possibility to make their lives their own. They are effectively chattels of their husbands, royal or not. Interestingly enough it is the women in the convents who actually have choices and are able to make their own decisions about how they will live their lives.
It is a fascinating novel - a "can't put it down" book that I have no hesitation in being very pleased to applaud.