An article by Janice Kennedy (as published in The Ottawa Citizen, February 10, 2008)
The rays of the Sun King, Louis XIV, turned France a thousand shades of gold. When he finally began his long and absolute rule in 1661, the towering Bourbon monarch presided over a France in which Molière and Racine created drama, LaFontaine created fables and architects and artisans created the splendour of Versailles.
The court of Louis XIV dazzled, celebrating youth, style, infinite possibility and an intensity of joie de vivre.
Not the kind of place for a shy young tomboy from the sticks.
“She was not at all sophisticated,” says historical novelist Sandra Gulland about Louise de la Vallière, her latest heroine. “She was a horsewoman, a jock, and a very unlikely person for Louis to choose, because he was Mr. Glamour.”
Louise—the love of Louis’s life, at least for a time—is the central character of Gulland’s new novel, Mistress of the Sun. The book appears seven years after Gulland’s last novel, The Last Great Dance on Earth. That was the final instalment of her trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte (the other two titles are The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. and Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe), a trilogy that has sold more than a million copies worldwide and appeared in 13 languages.
Gulland, who lives in a hilltop log home near Killaloe when she and her retired husband are not wintering in Mexico, admits that it’s been a long time between books—and even longer since she first stumbled upon the unsophisticated young woman who stole the heart of a king.
That was 20 years ago. Gulland, 63, decided to actually start writing about Louise after she’d completed her first Josephine book and had started to sketch out the story.
“Then, in the middle of that, I got offered the contract for the trilogy,” she recalls, “and I had to drop everything and just plunge. So I put everything in a box — ideas I was working on for the story, all my research notes — and said, ‘For when I’m finished with Josephine B.'” She laughs. “Only that took eight years.”
Even then, it has taken another seven years since her return to Louise’s story. It was a challenge, she says. First, she had to switch historical periods and research a whole new era. That entailed clearing out her Napoleonic library and restocking it with material from the time of Louis XIV a century earlier. The shelves in her small writing office (with the windows that look out over vast stretches of Renfrew County) and the storage area just off it gradually filled up with volumes on 17th-century life, from the grand political gestures of the day to its minutiae.
Gulland, whose books live and breathe with historical verisimilitude, is a meticulous student of whatever age she is writing about, horrified by the possibilty that some ill-researched anachronism might slip in if she’s not careful. Raised in Berkeley, California, she emigrated to Canada nearly 40 years ago and has lived in northern Labrador, Toronto and, for nearly 30 years, the Ottawa Valley. Seventeenth-century France was a whole different universe.
For Louise de la Vallière’s life and times, she accumulated and pored over books on the age’s clothing and textures, the king’s gardens, architecture, design, standards of beauty, behaviour, horsemanship, religion. One shelf even holds a paperback (in distinctive yellow and black) called Catholicism for Dummies.
She laughs when asked about it. “Well, Louise was a person with a very Catholic religious mindset, one that I found difficult to inhabit, says Gulland, who was not raised in any particular religion. “Catholicism was so foreign to me. “
Her books are novels, but no character in them ever says things that are out of his or her character or untrue to the context. If historical letters or journals exist, the words in them are used or lightly adapted. For Gulland, the narratives of people’s lives must unfold in their full historical context.
She is also scrupulous about not injecting false modern notes, such as 21st-century attitudes applied to 17th-century actions. When, at the book’s end, Louise enters a Carmelite convent, Gulland says “it was very challenging to show that as a triumph.” But if that is what it was, in that place and time, then Gulland’s commitment to characterizing it as such is unequivocal.
Mistress of the Sun also presented its author with challenges other than historical time switches. Louise interested her mightily, but so did other characters from Louis’s court, and she ended up writing what amounted to several books.
“I did a year of writing,” recalls Gulland, “and I decided, ‘This is just too hard. I don’t know how to tell this story. I can’t do this.'” She handed what she had done over to her agent, who helped her find some clarity in what was threatening to overwhelm her. Gulland’s agent decided that what she liked most of all was the part about Louise. “So at that point, I decided that I was just going to have to tackle Louise’s story, and I was going to have to make it work.”
Luckily, she had juicy material. An avid horse-lover herself (with a horse of her own, Finnigan, that she keeps in a stable near Killaloe), Gulland was initially drawn to Louise because of the latter’s reputation as an outstanding horsewoman, a woman who could actually stand on a cantering horse—a stunt she executed with grace shortly after the birth of her second child.
She learned about Louise when she was researching details about Josephine, during whose lifetime a book about Louise de la Vallière was very popular.
“It was the story of her horsemanship and the romance of her falling in love with the Sun King that did it for me. It just fired my imagination.” She wrote a short story about Louise, but gradually the demands of the Napoleonic trilogy took over.
But Gulland kept Louise at the back of her mind, along with the intense drama of the period, a time of scheming, splendour and such infamous events as the Affair of the Poisons, when murder and scandal led to countrywide hysteria about poisonings and witchcraft. It was also the time of the mysterious “man in the iron mask,” imprisoned and subsequently immortalized in literature.
“It was an irresistible story,” says Gulland. With an irresistible heroine and cast of characters.
Louise joined the court of Louis XIV when she was just 17, and the king himself not much older. “It was a young world. The country was run by 20-year-olds, and they were having such a good time. Louis was serious, though, about ruling well. He played hard, and he worked hard. They were golden days.”
And Louise was a golden match for Louis, unlikely though that appeared at first. It was reported that she could outride Louis, who was an exceptionally good athlete and rider.
Both she and Louis shared a love of the great outdoors, although Louise was said to be able to out-hunt her king. “Apparently she was really good with a boar spear,” says Gulland, “which is astonishing. She was also an extraordinary dancer—and he was as well. The dances were very balletic, and both of them got starring roles.”
What drew Louis to Louise, says Gulland, was the freedom she represented to him. “Brought up in the public eye, he was very guarded. And I think his relationship with Louise was where he could just be himself. That’s my conjecture.”
Gulland also found Louis a very appealing character—at least until he all but dumped Louise and took up with the villainous Athénaïs, whom Gulland calls “quite a piece of work.”
The vampy Athénaïs “brought the worst out in him. He was always a good king, but he had a private side that was less attractive. He was probably addicted to sex—even as a 70-year-old, he needed to have sex every day. He had a big appetite in everything—food, entertainment, grandeur—and I think his appetites made him less desirable over time. He became too self-important.”
Despite the change of heart in Louis, with whom she had had children, the unmarried Louise maintained her own sense of identity and dignity. That is what Mistress of the Sun celebrates.
It also celebrates an unlikely heroine in a dazzling age. The unsophisticated Louise, like Josephine, came from minor nobility. She did not engage in exchanges of rapier wit and quick repartee, made friends far too easily, and was shy—all of which made her a challenge to the court world she came to inhabit, a place of social conspiracies, cynical relationships and complicated loyalties.
“She was a country girl,” says Gulland, “and she wasn’t at all ambitious. She didn’t conspire to get castles or possessions, or anything like that. She didn’t want anything from Louis but himself.”
An irresistible story indeed.
When Gulland finally finished the novel, at least in its original draft, she did what she likes to do with each new work. She submitted it to scrupulous critical reading from a diversity of readers. Not only did her professionals—agent and editors—have a go at it, she gave it to a book club in California, where her father still lives, as well as to her daughter’s book club in Toronto. She also asked for the opinions of numerous friends.
“It takes an army,” says Gulland. “For me, anyway. And it absolutely shocked me that every single person came back with a long list of what they thought the strengths and weaknesses were, and a long list of typos and errors. And every single list was different. Unbelievable.”
Gulland says she is deeply grateful for the comments of her early readers, and is responsive to them. “Especially where the comments agree with each other. I pay serious attention to those things. I respond very well to critiques.”
The approach certainly worked well the first time around. The Josephine trilogy continues to sell well, even in its more recent Serbian, Czech and Russian editions. “It’s been amazing.”
Mistress of the Sun represents more of an unknown for Gulland. “I don’t know how this one will do. It will be different. With Josephine, you didn’t have to say who she was. But Louise is not a marquee name.”
At least not yet.