The challenge for historical novelists: sorting out common-law wives, mistresses, courtisans & shadow queens

The challenge for historical novelists: sorting out common-law wives, mistresses, courtisans & shadow queens

Given the recent revelations about French President François Hollande’s personal life, I think future writers of historical fiction are fortunate. They will have so many details to go on, from photos of President Hollande arriving for a rendezvous on a scooter to tweets sent by the former First Lady, his live-in mistress Valerie Trierweiler.

Hollane etc.

In writing biographical historical fiction that involves a public figure, it’s often difficult to discover how an intimate relationship evolves.

While writing my newest novel, THE SHADOW QUEEN, it was easy enough to see how lovers met, but a little more difficult to sort out how, exactly, a more intimate relationship came about—for these lovers were all “in the family,” so to speak:

Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan (Mistress 2) was the good friend of Louise de la Vallière (Mistress 1)—or so Louise thought.

Madame de Maintenon (Mistress 3) worked for Athénaïs (Mistress 2), as governess of her children by the King.

Claudette des Oeillets—heroine of THE SHADOW QUEEN who has a child by the King (rather a Mistress 3.5)—also worked for Athénaïs (Mistress 3) as her lady’s maid, and one has to presume that this arrangement was with Athénaïs’s approval.

The Hollande family tree, however, will be as difficult for future historical novelists to sort out as in days of old, and in this respect I don’t envy them in the least. Ms Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former common-law wife, is the unmarried mother of his four children. Ms Trierweiler, his second partner, has three children by her second husband. That’s a family-menage of seven children—way too many to manage in a scene.

Film actress Julie Gayet, the newest Other Woman, has two children by her first husband, but it’s up for grabs whether or not she will be moving into the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic. If she does, the international Press, you can be sure, will be watching.

There is a general perception that it is not uncommon for French leaders to have a mistress. Is this, however, fair? In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, having a mistress was almost a requirement for a French, English, Spanish or German king. Understandably, in my view, given that royalty had to marry for political reasons, not love.


Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a rather monogamous adulterer: he usually had only one mistress at a time. His cousin Charles II of England, however, had several mistresses at once. (The most famous was actress Nell Gwynn, who is reported to have once sabotaged a rival by putting laxatives in her food before her rendezvous with the King.)

In modern history, Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 in order to be with his mistress, the divorcee Wallis Simpson. Prince Charles married his long-term mistress Camilla Parker Bowles. And then, of course, we have President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

In one respect, I venture to say that the French do take the cake.  A number of French shadow queens were significantly powerful women.

Gabrielle d’Estrees, the Catholic mistress of Protestant Henri IV, helped end France’s religious wars.

King Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, imposed taxes, appointed ministers and made laws.

And, lest you think that the role of shadow queen is strictly sexual, consider Madame de Pompadour, who was King Louis XV’s mistress for almost two decades, despite—I’ve read—being unable to have intercourse. Instead, she provided the King with young women to sleep with.

I admire the French public for considering it none of the press’s business what their leaders do in their personal life … which makes me feel just a little trashy for even mentioning it all here. But then, I’m just thinking ahead, academically speaking. ;-)

Have you ever noticed how the word “courtesan” has the word “court” in it? From Wikipedia:

“In Renaissance usage, the Italian word cortigiana, feminine of cortigiano (“courtier”) came to refer to “the ruler’s mistress”, and then to a well-educated and independent woman of loose morals, essentially a trained artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for companionship.”