The French Mistress
by Susan Holloway Scott
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The reviled French mistress of Restoration England's King Charles II was Louise de Keroualle, the daughter of an impoverished Breton nobleman. King Charles distributed his affections widely and energetically, but of his numerous mistresses and dalliances, it was Louise of whom he said on his deathbed, "I die loving her." She had been his mistress for thirteen years, the only one who never entertained another lover.
The French Mistress begins as a Cinderella story. Innocent young Louise arrives at the court of Louis XIV with her modest gowns and baby face to become maid of honor to Henriette d'Angleterre, the wife of Louis's resentful and mean homosexual brother. Unhappily out of place at the French court, where the elaborate protocol barely masks a seething den of adultery and sadistic backbiting, Louise becomes infatuated from afar with Henriette's cherished brother, the English king: "a dark, handsome man in his prime, tall and lean, with melancholy dark eyes and a sensual mouth."
Amid strong foreshadowing of later events, the early chapters of The French Mistress linger in France where Louise, more witness than actor, grows a bit faster from pious innocent to astute political animal than some readers may find completely credible. When she arrives in England, captivating and captivated by the randy English monarch, the pace of the story picks up and gains texture. One of the novel's charms is the contrast that Charles's stubborn Parliament and free-wheeling, casual court makes to the beribboned, bejeweled formality of Louis XIV's absolute monarchy.
Scott looks beyond the centuries-old English scandal-mongering to paint a sympathetic portrait of a woman sent to England by the French with the mission of persuading Charles to make England a French ally against the Dutch. The French Mistress explores the intimate personal conflicts and dilemmas of a loyal French subject who can find love only with the man she has been sent to spy upon. (2009, 377 pages, including an Author's Note discussing the fate of Louise after the novel's close)
More about The French Mistress at Powell's Books
Interview with author Susan Holloway Scott
Other novels featuring Louise as a character:
Royal Harlot by Susan Holloway Scott (2007), about Charles II's mistress Barbara Villiers Palmer. More info
The King's Favorite by Susan Holloway Scott (2008), about Nell Gwynn, who rose from poverty as an actress and become the mistress of King Charles II while still in her teens. More info
Dark Angels by Karleen Koen (2006), about a good-hearted but frankly conniving maid of honor in the courts of Louis XIV and Charles II during approximately the same time period as The French Mistress; Louise appears under her middle name, Renée. More info
The Perfect Royal Mistress by Diane Haeger (2007), about Louise's rival Nell Gwynne. More info
The Loves of Charles II by Jean Plaidy, a trilogy of novels about Charles II collected into a single volume; includes The Wandering Prince (1956), A Health Unto His Majesty (1956), and Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord (1957). More info
Nonfiction about Louise:
Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, 1649-1734 by Henri Forneron (1886). Available free online from Google Books or in a new printed edition.
Charles II's French Mistress, A Biography of Louise de Keroualle by Bryan Bevan (1972). More info
Wikipedia entry on Louise de Kérouaille
At the Movies:
The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II, a 2004 BBC/A&E drama about the life of Charles II, featuring Mélanie Thierry in a minor role as Louise; the hard-to-find British edition is preferable to the ruthlessly edited American version. More info
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