I didn’t know a lot about the Marquise de Pompadour before reading The Rivals of Versailles (she’s a few decades before the time period I focus on in The Wardrobe Mistress) but with my love of French history, I was immediately drawn to this book and enjoyed it immensely. The Marquise only gets one brief mention in my book, as one of the characters is a watchmaker who was commissioned by the king to design a ring with a watch mounted on it for her, and likes to reminisce about it, but she’s a woman deserving of her own story and well worth reading more about.
The Rivals of Versailles is the second in Sally Christie’s wonderful ‘The Mistresses of Versailles’ trilogy. The first one (which I also read and would recommend) follows the scandalous lives of the Mailly Nesle sisters, all four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV.
Marquise de Pompadour is the central character of The Rivals of Versailles. Born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, she rises far above her humble origins and rather unfortunate last name, reaching a position of considerable power and gaining the title of the Marquise de Pompadour after Louis XV bestowed it upon her. From 1745, she was his principle mistress for about six years, and afterward remained his close friend and confidant, even advising him on political matters, until her death in 1764.
Jeanne is a delightful narrator to spend time with. Clever and kind, she nevertheless gains the edge required to thrive in the conniving court at Versailles. One of my favourite elements of the book is that Jeanne, who is unfailingly courteous in public, has a sharp little habit of dropping a gemstone, engraved with the initials of her enemy, into the fishbowl every time she successfully vanquishes one of them. It that sounds cruel, it should be noted that her enemies were usually other courtiers who tried to ruin her first. One of them even uses the tragedy of her miscarriage to write cruel poems referencing it. I have to admit, I cheered a little when she managed to get that particular person sent from court.
Louis XV was quite the libertine, and it’s a testament to Jeanne’s intelligence and political astuteness that she remained one of his closest companions even after they ceased being lovers. Sally Christie does a wonderful job of bringing such a fascinating historical figure to life.
From the jacket cover:
And you thought sisters were a thing to fear. In this captivating follow-up to Sally Christie’s clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles.
The year is 1745 and King Louis XV’s bed is once again empty. Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a beautiful girl from the middle classes. As a child, a fortune teller had told young Jeanne’s destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King’s arms.
All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals—including a lustful lady-in-waiting, a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters—she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.
Told in Christie’s celebrated witty and modern style, The Rivals of Versailles will delight and entrance fans as it brings to life the court of Louis XV in all its pride, pestilence, and glory.
And if you enjoy this book as much as I did, don’t forget there’s still one more in the trilogy!