There's no doubt about the top position that a woman could reach in France in the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King, at least by her own efforts. That supreme goal was to be the king's official maitresse en titre, the king's official mistress. Louis in his long reign had just three. It is the middle of these, Athenais, or to give her proper due, the Marquise de Montespan, about whom Lisa Hilton has chosen to write a biography, titled "The Real Queen of France".
As that title suggests, Hilton admires Athenais; she's more than a little seduced by this powerful character, but then given all of the assassination that the marquise's character has endured – in her lifetime and afterwards – perhaps as a corrective that's no bad thing. We can do with positive, approving accounts of powerful women – particularly those who've started from practically nowhere and risen, determinedly and creatively, to the very top.
But that's not a view of her generally shared by either contemporaries or later historians. The famous letter writer Madam de Sevigne called her "the Torrent", or "Circe", and her character's been blackened by her alleged involvement in the "The Affair of the Poisons" – a murky, widespread case of alleged sorcery, witchcraft and poisoning that stretched through all of French society, from the bottom to the centre of Versailles itself. (Hilton convincingly acquits Athenais of serious involvement in the case – she might indeed have used love potions on the king, but wild claims of black masses and poisoning attempts don't, she says, hold up to any sort of scrutiny, and can be traced to political machinations behind the investigation.)
That's not to say, however, that Athenais didn't have contemporary admirers – not to mention those seeking to ride on the skirt-tails of her success – they called her La Grande Sultane, or La Maitress Regnante. And that hints at what Hilton sees as her greatest success – and contribution to France – her place at the very creative heart of the cultural heartland that Versailles became.
Hilton is very good at setting the scene of Versailles – the way Louis – his childhood scarred by conflict between his regent mother and the aristocracy – sought to enfold and trap France's entire ruling class within this gilded prison, and the way in which its excessive luxury was, she says, a driving force for France's industrial development, and growth of France as the defining luxury brand – a position that to large degree it still holds today.
The biographer follows a direct, linear path through Athenais's life, beginning with her childhood in a family of the bluest of blue blood, although seeing her prospects of a glorious marriage (by which was meant not one of love but of fine family alliance to money, power and more blue blood) reduced by her father's extravagance and the cost of the dowry of her elder sister. So, Hilton explains, it was at the advanced age of 22 that Athenais was to be tied to the decent, good-lucking and moderately solvent Marquis de Noirmoutiers. Had that come off, Hilton doesn't speculate, although the reader surely must, there might not have been this "Real Queen" – her career might have followed a more conventional path.
But this young man got tangled in a messy case of aristocratic honour – an early morning duel that left three men dead and him fleeing into exile, Curiously, only weeks later, Athenais found herself marrying the Marquis de Montespan, brother of one of the dead man, in the closest thing to a love match the 17th century was likely to see among the aristocracy. He should have been marrying money, so really should she, but he additionally had no connection to power or influence, and a strong reputation for gambling and extravagance – which he was soon to be living up to, and how, as well as proving his inability to succeed at anything he tried his hand at – notably military matters.
So it became essential that she secure for herself a good court post – which she duly did, becoming lady in waiting to the poor dim and dumpy Spanish Queen – that was no fun in itself, but it put Athenais at the centre of the court – in its masques and ballets, its spectacles, and very near to the king himself, and to her fellow lady in waiting, Louise de la Valliere, the king's first, and still installed official mistress. Hilton is rather hard on Louise – she surely can't have been quite so dull as the writer suggests – but it seems clear that once Athenais put her mind – and her body – to it, Louis couldn't but be dazzled, and seduced from his sworn mistress. (Not that, Hilton reports, it was hard to seduce Louis – practically any woman in the right place at the right time could do it – often several of them in one day – but usually it was more than a moment of of diversion.)
There's plenty of detail and background colour, but you never really feel as a reader that you, or Hilton, has got truly close to Athenais, has understood not just her ambition, but the person beneath it. I'm not sure, however, that you can blame the biographer for this. As Hilton explains, the Versailles that Athenais played a big part in creating was Europe's perfect model of the baroque – "the expression of classical idea of life lived as spectacle, in which men conduct themselves as 'actors' before God and every public gesture becomes ceremonial." Louis himself acted the king so much, Hilton suggests, there may not have been anything left of the original man underneath. (Helped in the early years of relationship she suggests by the arrogantly confident Athenais – who always trusted that her fine breeding would see her through.)
One minor irritation in the book is that popular poetry, ditties and jokes are scattered through the text, but translated only in the endnotes. My reading French can just about stumble through them – although almost certainly missing some of the puns, but why not make these – in a text very much meant for popular consumption – immediately available on the relevant page.
But overall it is a rollicking, entertaining, even inspiring, spin through a life lived to the full. Hilton does a decent job of helping the reader keep track of multi- titled aristocracy and their complicated genealogy. And you'll emerge also with a clear sense of Versailles in its best days (the accounts of the undergardeners sprinting frantically from fountain to fountain to ensure they "played" as the king walked past will certainly stay with me whenever I think of those endless vistas, which still survive today. And if all of this is tinted for the modern reader with the knowledge of what comes next – the Revolution and all of that – Hilton has sensibly chosen to avoid that – putting Athenais in her own flawed but glorious time, and letting the future take care of itself. (Except to note, for those who care about such things, that through her daughter to Louis, Mlle de Blois, Duchesse d'Orleans, that her great-great-great grandson became King of France (the nation's only constitutional monarch). And by way of his 10 children, Athenais came to be related to the royal houses of Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy and Luxembourg.