Trapped in Versailles? Monsieur Montespan by Jean Teule.
Jean Teule’s factional novel Monsieur Montespan (2008) is set in Paris from 1663 to 1707. In January 1663 eight aristocratic men, in four pairs, are involved in simultaneous duels with swords ‘at the slightest provocation.’ One is killed, six are executed for his death, and one (the Marquis de Noirmoutier) flees to Portugal. Eight days after the six are executed, the Marquis de Noirmoutier’s fiance, Francoise, marries Louis-Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin, known as the Marquis de Montespan.
Montespan announces to Francoise that he is poor, and will borrow a lot of money to finance a battle near the city of Lorraine to fight King Louis XIV, and become a captain, which will ‘rescue him from obscurity.’ Francoise thinks this is a silly idea since three of his brothers have already died in battle. Montespan, nevertheless, goes off to battle, but the opposition surrender immediately. He is horrified because he wanted a long war. With no medal, no title, and more in debt, he returns to Paris. His wife is pregnant, and she has a girl, little Marie-Christine.
Montespan looks for another battle and finds one further afield – at Gigeri on the Algerian coast. This time he returns in shame and deeper in debt. Francoise is pregnant again, and has a boy, Louis-Antoine.
Montespan hears that France and Spain are fighting in Flanders. Meanwhile, King Louis XIV – the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) – has fallen in love with Francoise, and keeps her in the Versailles Palace as the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting. Montespan is mortified. He is madly in love with Francoise. In reality – for Francoise did exist – Madame Montespan (1640-1707) becomes the most famous of the Sun King’s mistresses, and bears him seven children.
And so, for the rest of the novel, Monsieur Montespan devises devious and silly ways to win his wife back, while he is looking after their two children. On one occasion he draped his coach in black, with a pair of stag’s antlers wobbling on the roof, and drove to the Versailles palace.
But Montespan is mocked by society. People sing songs about his losses in battle and his folly. He is ridiculed and ridiculous. Twenty-four years later he is still trying to capture his wife’s heart again. And the King has his own strategies for keeping her in the Versailles Palace.
But what is Francoise thinking? She is being ‘kept’ in a room below the main bedroom – the bedroom that the Sun King Louis XIV shared with his first wife Marie Theresa of Spain and his second wife Francoise d’Aubigne, the Marquise de Maintenon. D’Aubigne should not be confused with the main character Monsieur Montespan’s wife Francoise, the Madame de Montespan who cared for the king’s children and became his mistress.
In witty and comical twists of fate and bad fortune, the story is told in the bawdy, frolicking style of 17th century France. The insults are clever, the antics are ridiculous and frivolous, and the schemes of the broken-hearted Montespan are absurd and desperate. What a delightful novel! I loved it!