Yes, Monsieur Montespan. Much is written of his wife, Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan and mistress of Louis XIV. Indeed, much has been written of any number of royal mistresses. But, to the best of my knowledge, little has been written of their cuckolded husbands.
The story begins with a group of young men out on the town. The year is 1663 and the town is Paris, but the young men are not so different from young men today. There is music, drinking, shouting, laughter, arguing …
… and the next morning there is a duel, and one of the young men is dead.
He leaves a fiancée. Françoise. A beautiful young woman, an orphan, she is quite alone in the world.
One of his friends, Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, shows concern, and that concern soon turns to love. Within weeks they are married.
It is clear that Louis-Henri is passionately in love with his bride, but her feelings are less clear. Is she in love with her husband, or is she in love with romance, passion, love, beauty … ?
Françoise hates the straightened circumstances that she, her husband, and the children that arrive so quickly, must live in as she struggle to keep up with the social whirl. She is offered a position at court and eagerly accepts, changing her name to Athénaïs.
Athénaïs, so beautiful and so charming, is a huge success. The King notices her, and she soon becomes his mistress. She rises high, higher even than the queen, and she is, of course, lost to her family.
At that point the Marquis was expected to bow to the divine right of kings, to surrender his wife, to settle quietly into whatever position the king offered him.
Not this Marquis. He wanted his wife back. He protested loudly at the King’s behaviour. And he stood his ground, even when he was threatened, exiled, shunned, and treated abhorrently by society.
Jean Teulé tells the story of the Marquis with great wit and flair, painting a colourful picture of the excesses, and indeed the sheer ridiculousness, of the Sun King’s court.
It was a bawdy and earthy tale, and at times it was a little too much for me.
But there were wonderful human stories too, with comedy, tragedy, and pretty much everything in between.
I was sorry that Athénaïs’s story was missing, and that, even before she left her family, her character was elusive. I can’t quite explain how or why, but that definitely left a gap.
Monsieur Montespan was a very readable book, and I can understand why it was a huge hit in France, but I can’t shake the feeling that there might be an even better book to be written telling the same story from both sides.
Translated by Alison Anderson