September 18, 2015

Loved It: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie + Fun Facts

Series: The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy 1
Format: eGalley
Release Date: September 1, 2015
Publisher: Atria
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Genre: Historical Fiction

A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France's most "well-beloved" monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.

Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.

Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot - and women - forward. The King's scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie's stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

It's been at least a week since I've read THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES, Sally Christie's debut novel, and I am still at a loss for words to express how much I loved this scandalous, *whispers* and very kinky (who sleeps with FOUR sisters?!), tale. If this happened in our generation, I'm sure the Mailly Nesle sisters will be tabloid fodder and we will not hear the end of it! Imagine, 4 out 5 sisters became the King's mistresses and their reign overlapping?! Fascinating story right? 

Here's some of my highlights about the Mailly Nesle sisters:

  • THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES is told in alternating POV's between the Mailly Nesle sisters. I personally am not a fan of a gaggle of storytellers, but it worked for me in this case. SChristie gave each sister a very distinct voice: Louise the naive one; Pauline the bitch; Dianne was the silly sister; Hortense the voice of reason; and Marie Ann the cunning one; so we got to know the sisters rather intimately. Marie Ann's storyline is my favorite.

  • Though the Sisters were taking turns in telling the story, it didn't veer away from the premise. The novel was going in one direction and there were no side stories that distracted from the main plot. 

  • The Mailly Nesle sisters were ambitious and vicious, they acted as if being sisters is nothing more than an accident of birth. Very discomfitting to imagine as I'm very close to my sister.

  • You can say that the Mailly Nesle sisters came from a family of famous courtesans. Their grandmother and grand-aunts were mistresses of Kings during their time, and their mother was reputed to have various affairs with prestigious men in court too. I guess they're proving the addage about apples not falling far from the tree, eh?

  • I loved the letters in between chapters. They were wonderful foils and halped shape what kind of relationship the sisters had. If Louise took advantage of her status as the King's mistress and arranged for auspicious marriages for her sisters, I don't think they would've been threats to her.

  • Although the angle of the novel was the rivalry between the Mailly Nesle sisters and their respective "reign" as the King's favorite, THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES wasn't a sexually charged and explicit story. It's a story about love, but it's not your typical bodice ripping historical romance. It's about sex, power, and a demonstration of virility, that and the privileges of being a maîtresse-en-titre, SChristie balanced those out with the deteriotation of not only the relationship between the sisters, but their persons as well. Karmic? Maybe.

I was completely absorbed by THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES from beginning to end. And the fact that this isn't fiction, but an actual happenstance in history is probably the biggest hook for me. The story is so delectable, a blatant yet impressive show of entitlement that only Kings can get away with, I simply can't get enough. FOUR sisters as mistresses?! Scandalous! The King must be packing!

My only regret is we're not treated to a King Louis XV POV, even if it's just a few chapter. In the beginning, he's painted as a husband who is dutiful, faithful, and very in love with his wife, the Queen. When he was with Louise, the King felt pangs of conscience for stepping out of his marriage. I'm very interested on how his advisors managed to convince him that having a mistress is okay, almost a necessity. But I still might get my wish in the next two books featuring the Madame de Pompadour and Countess du Barry. *fingers crossed*

Overall, THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES is a sensational debut. I'm glad I read it.

*If you still need convincing, read the excerpt below, it foreshadows the novel perfectly*

An VII (1799)

We were five sisters and four became mistresses of our king. Only I escaped his arms but that was my choice: I may be eighty-four years old, and all that I speak of may have happened in the far distance of the past, but in a woman vanity is eternal. So I need to tell you: I could have. Had I wanted. Because he—the king—he certainly wanted.

I’m not speaking of the last king, our sixteenth Louis, poor hapless man dead these six years on the guillotine, followed by his Austrian wife. No, here I talk of the fifteenth Louis, a magnificent king. I knew him when he was fresh and young, no hint of the debauched libertine that he would become in his later years, with his drooping eyes and sallow skin, his lips wet with lust.

The story of my sisters and Louis XV is today mostly forgotten, their memory eclipsed by more famous and more scandalous mistresses, and by the upheaval of the last decade. I too am forgetful now, my memory faded and worn as my sisters slip in and out of the shadows in my mind. I spend my hours immersed in a sea of their old letters; reading them, then rereading them, is both my comfort and my sorrow. Is anything more bittersweet than the pull of past memories? These letters, a portrait of one sister that hangs above the fireplace, and a faded sketch of another pressed between the pages of a Bible, are all that remain to me now.

It was years ago that it all began: 1729, almost three-quarters of a century past. It was such a different time then, a completely different world. We were secure and arrogant in our privilege, never suspecting that things might change, that the accident of birth might not always be the promise it once was. We were born daughters of a marquis; titles and courtesy and the perquisites of the nobility were all that we ever knew, but now, what do those things matter? Well, they still matter a lot, though all we citoyens must pretend they do not.

The world--our world—was softer then; those who could afford to do so buttered and feathered themselves until they were insulated from any of the unpleasant realities of life. We never dreamed--ever--that a horror like the Terror could happen.

We were five sisters in our childhood home on the Quai des Théatins. Our home was in the center of Paris on a road by the Seine, lined with the houses of the rich and powerful. The house still stands on that street, now renamed the Quai Voltaire to honor that great man. I shudder to think who may live there now.

It was a grand house, an elegant house, a reminder to all of our place in the world. I remember well my mother’s golden bedroom on the second floor, opulent and resplendent, the awe we felt when summoned for a visit. Of course, the nursery was not so grand; children in those days were mostly ignored, and so why waste money on things, or children, that were so rarely seen? Up in the aerie of our nursery on the fourth floor, the rooms were cold and bare, but comfortable, our haven in a heartless world.

We had no education to speak of; the aim was not an educated daughter, but a mannered daughter, one who knew her way through the intricate maze of politeness and social graces that governed our world. In truth, even with the wisdom that is supposed to come with age, I can’t say that more education would have served me better in my life.

We were five sisters and we had no brothers; my mother sometimes remarked, when she was happy on champagne, the misfortune that had cursed her so.

Though we sprang from the same parents, we were all so different. Oh, how different! Louise was the eldest, charming and somewhat pretty, nineteen when she was first presented at Court. She was a dreamer, always with stars in her eyes when she thought of her future and the happiness that would surely come for her.

Then there was Pauline, fierce with no softness in her body and a character to make a pirate proud. She was as headstrong as a horse and ruled the nursery; she towered over us, both in height and in strength. Even at seventeen, Pauline knew she would be powerful and important. How she knew that, I know not. But she knew.

Our next sister was Diane, fifteen then and always jolly, lax and lazy. She avoided conflict and only wanted to giggle and laugh and dream of becoming a duchess. Physically she reminded everyone of our sister Pauline, but without the force of personality. I suppose that was both a curse and a blessing.

Then there was I, only fourteen when everything changed. All called me the prettiest of the family and many commented on my likeness to my namesake, my famous great-grandmother Hortense Mancini, who in her time bewitched more than one king.

Finally there was little Marie-Anne, though it seems strange now to speak of her last. She was twelve and also very pretty, but hidden beneath her angel face was a sharp and shearing mind that emerged occasionally to astound our nursemaids.

I remember our years on the fourth floor of the Quai des Théatins as happy ones, years of light and love. Certainly, there were small differences, the usual squabbles and petty fights, but overall harmony reigned, a harmony that was all too precious and absent later in our lives. Perhaps there were signs, but they were faint and thin, mere whispers of the callousness and suffering to come. No, my memory is of a happy time, before the harsh world of adults caught us and covered us with its disappointments and cruelties, before we lost the closeness of our younger years and before Louise became broken, Pauline mean, Diane fat and lazy, and Marie-Anne manipulative and hard.

But through it all, through the good, the bad, the sin and the scandal, the heartbreak and the joy, the exiles and the deaths, through it all, they were my sisters. And now I am all that is left. I sit in my darkened rooms, an old woman, passing my days rustling through their letters and my memories. If I am careful, and still, I can hear their voices once again.

Hi Sally! Welcome to Talk Supe and thank you for accepting my invitation to chat briefly about THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES.

History is flooded with infamous women from Bathsheba to Monica Lewinsky. From the tableau, why did you choose to write about the Mailly Nesle sisters? I mean obviously, bedding 4 sisters is very kinky even in today's standards. 

I was trawling Wikipedia one night – I think I was looking at 18th century portraits – when I stumbled across one of the sisters, then clicked on a few more, and I could feel my excitement mounting. It was like meeting a soulmate: our eyes locked across a crowded room / computer screen and instantly, I knew. I knew this was the story for me, and the more I researched the more excited I got, and the more my initial impression was confirmed.

What held your fascination and why pick King Louis XV's court? 

Perhaps any story, no matter how boring, could be made into a good book with the right writing and the right characters. But for a first time novelist, having such an amazing story to work with was a huge bonus: How could a book about these sisters not be interesting?

Prior to researching THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES, I was a history buff but not a huge fan of either the 18th century or Versailles. During the research process I fell in love with both: the 18th century was such a crucial time in European history, and life and the shenanigans at Versailles were so interesting.

I love the letters in the novel, are those actual letters between the sisters, and are they direct translations?

They are not actual letters. But writing letters – long missives, shorter updates, quick notes – was the substitute for our email and phones today, and would have been a major activity of any day. It’s mentioned in the book that Pauline sent the king thousands of letters, multiple ones every day – apparently that’s true! 

I'm sure there were hundreds, if not thousands of missives exchanged.

A few of Marie Anne’s letters supposedly survive, but I don’t think they are genuine. In one of them she is responding to the idea of becoming the king’s mistress and writes: “But what difficulties I foresee! Three of the same blood! They grumbled about a second – imagine what they would say about a third!” 

Now that sounds exactly like a letter a novelist (like me) would write, to neatly share information and advance plot points. And it’s not a topic you would actually discuss in a letter: much more suitable for a face-to-face talk. There was a lot of fake autobiographies and letter collections published in the 18th and 19th century, and I think her collection of letters belongs in that category.

I actually interviewed a real life Mailly-Nesle (the family still exists in France) and I was really hoping for something along the lines of: “But of course: there is a trunk in the attic of our chateau that contains many of the sisters’ letters – I will ask the current Marquis to send them to you!” Didn’t happen like that, unfortunately. 

Out of curiosity, why didn't include King Louis XV's POV to the mix? 

Originally the book had lots of other characters popping in to say their bit, but those were quickly nixed during the editorial process (which in retrospect I completely agree with: it’s hard enough keeping track of five POV without adding more). And I like that Louis is left silent: he’s a blank slate upon which each sister can project her hopes and her dreams. 

Will you ever treat us to a King Louis XV POV? 

I have decided if TSOV is a success, I will write fan fiction from Louis’ POV ala Midnight Sun and Stephenie Meyers. Though it might get a little boring (“I saw XX and got aroused. Then I saw YY and got aroused. Then I….”)

He’s not in #2 but I was toying with having him on his death bed in #3… musing back on his life, his mind wandering? What a strange, strange life he had...

Based on your extensive research, what was King Louis XV like? From the novel he is very capricious and naturally entitled, but what are his other quirks? I remember reading somewhere that he stank. Lol

Haha, I would be surprised stank! He was apparently quite a fastidious man and though certain aspects of life at Versailles would appear quite filthy to us, people were bathing and washing themselves quite a bit. 

I don't think Diane got that memo...

Apparently Louis XV was as handsome and well-mannered as I portray him in the book. He probably had a kind, decent heart, but when you’ve been put at the center of everything for your entire life, I guess you can’t help but become self-centered and egotistical.

As a king, Louis XV doesn’t have a strong reputation and hasn’t left the best legacy to posterity. He had such a strange upbringing (imagine being orphaned and king at 5) and never really learnt to stand on his own feet when it came to important decisions. He was very secretive and apparently liked to play his ministers off against each other, and watch them fight amongst themselves. As he got older, he retreated further and further away from responsibility and into his private life, moves that didn’t sit well with the courtiers or “the people” – both groups expected their monarch to be a public figure.

He was an absolutist, of course, and was firmly convinced that to compromise (with parliament, with groups demanding more say in ruling) would be the end of the monarchy. His grandson, Louis XVI, did attempt to compromise, and we all know how that ended. But a lot of the groundwork for the Revolution was definitely laid during the long years of Louis XV’s reign (1715-1774; the Revolution started in 1789): would things have been different had been a different king? Hard to say.

I generally struggle with multiple POV's, but I loved how you constructed it for THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES. You said you enjoyed writing in Pauline's voice the most. Which sister was the most challenging to channel for you? 

I enjoyed writing all of them and it was easy (and fun!) to slip in and out of their characters. I probably had the hardest time with Louise’s, because she is a bit of a sap, and let’s be honest, sappy people can be quite boring. It was also a challenge distinguishing between Pauline and Marie Anne, since they were both quite similar, though Pauline is more brazen and Marie Anne more subtle and manipulative.

The Royal French court is my favorite historical setting. The debauchery is just off the charts compared to other European Royal courts, I love how utterly unapologetic and scandalous it is! Quickly, can you give us 3 things that were "cut" from the novel? 

Oooh, nice question! 

  • Apparently Marie Anne had a lazy side, and she had a lift installed so she could be hauled up to her apartments on the 3rd floor. The lift is sometimes associated with Madame de Pompadour (who had the same apartment after her) but it was Marie Anne who had it installed. 

  • Richelieu was a hoot to write and research, and I wished I’d gotten more of his early life into TSOV (he was in his 40s at the time of the story). He was a bright, horny young boy, often petted and cooed over by the ladies of the Court, who welcomed him into their boudoirs as a little pet and then found, as one biographer put it, “their motherly and sisterly kisses being returned with surprising ardor!” When he was 15 he was found under the bed of Louis XV’s mother - I managed to work that one into the next book, The Rivals of Versailles.

  • At 11, Louis XV was betrothed to a 3 year old Spanish princess who came to live at Versailles and grow up “French”. A few years later there was a homosexual scandal at Versailles, which might have affected / touched (literally?) the king. His ministers were horrified and rather than wait another seven years or so for the little Spanish infanta to be old enough to wed, they sent her back to Spain and quickly married Louis to Marie Leszczynska. Chantal Thomas, who wrote Farewell My Queen, recently wrote a book about the Spanish infanta, called The Exchange of Princesses. Awesome book!

Time for fun facts!

FACT: Louis really did love cats and had one called Snowball.

FACT: Louise’s horrible husband really did get excited when he found out his wife and the king were sleeping together. He was like, Yes! Our fortunes are made! And he rushed out and bought a pair of fine white horses.

FACT: One of my favorite stories from the book, alluded to in passing, is 12 year old Tante throwing a tantrum when she found out she was to be betrothed to a member of the (gasp!) newer nobility and not to someone of her same rank. I just love the image that that conjures up, especially when you think of 12 year olds today; makes you realize just what a long time 300 years is.

FACT: Pauline really is recorded as having said she was going to go to Versailles and displace her sister. But I sometimes wonder how exactly that anecdote came to light: did Pauline tell it herself? Was it via Madame de Dray (a real person) from the convent?

FACT: The sisters’ home in Paris still survives and is still called the hotel Mailly-Nesle. Most of the rooms have been modernized, but a few still remain, including their mother’s gold bedroom. You can see some pictures on my website.

FACT: The French government owns the Hotel Mailly-Nesle, though it is slated to be sold in 2017. All Sally Christie needs to do is sell ~ 50 millions copies of TSOV to be able to afford it. Please help her with this goal.

FACT: When Diane found out she was pregnant she really did say, as she does in the book: “My husband is so unfaithful to me, I don’t even know if the child is mine.” Some sources like to attribute that to her stupidity, but in fact she was being very witty.

FACT: Both Pauline and Hortense have descendants to this day.

I had fun chatting, Sally. Congratulations again on THE SISTERS OF VERSAILLES, and I'll be sure to invite you back to talk about book 2, The Rivals of Versailles (April 2016).

I'm a life-long history buff - and I mean life-long. One of the first adult books I read was Antonia Fraser's masterful Mary, Queen of Scots. Wow! That book just blew my little ten year old mind: something about the way it brought the past right back to life, made it live again on the page. I date my obsession with history to that time, but I'd been writing ("writing") ever since I was able to hold a pencil.

If you'd told my 12-year old self that I'd not be a writer when I grew up, I would have laughed you out of the tree house. With a few detours along the way, to work overseas in consulting and development, as well as to go to business school, I've finally come full circle to where I think I should be.

I currently live in Toronto and when I'm not writing, I'm playing lots of tennis; doing random historical research (old census records are my favorite); playing Scrabble, and squirrel-watching (the room where I write has French doors leading out to a deck; I avidly follow, and feed, a scruffy gang).

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  1. I don't think I've ever tried a book like that but it's fun fun fun to have a book set in France and I just love Versailles!

    1. If I visit France, will you be my tour guide??

  2. Damn, four sisters out of five are mistresses of the king?! There's got to be some serious political intrigue, ambition, and backstabbing right there O.O I'm definitely going to check this one out, stat. I just love the premise, and it is indeed interesting to know this is based off a true story in history.

    Faye at The Social Potato

    1. You bet, it's like the Republican nominations here :P

  3. Wow, Braine, this sounds MORE than fantastic. And tawdry. I LOVE tawdry ;) And I'd never even heard of it, so THANKS.

    1. Lol, I don't know about iit being tawdry but it's definitely a good tale. Unbelievably true

  4. I know so little about French history. It's kinda embarrassing. I was captivated reading your review, Braine, and the interview with Ms. Christie. I absolutely will pick up this one to read. It will make the history lessons very interesting. ;)

    1. Heck I don't know anything except my familiarity with the Kings. This will pique your curiosity that's for sure

  5. History is full of such color that I'm as intrigued to read about real stories as much as the more fictional ones. I think I'm most curious to why the fifth sister avoided the trend. ;)

    Engaging interview, ladies!

  6. Not my typical read but it sure does sound interesting.

    Karen @For What It's Worth

  7. A family of courtesans and five DISTINCT character voices? Sounds like a party! :)

    1. And they're very discerning too. They have a taste for royals mind you

  8. A kinky historical? I wanna read that one, Braine! hehe, yup, my dirty mind wants historical kink, it seems :)
    Have a fantastic Friday and happy reading.

    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    1. Not kinky like erotica. I find it kinky that someone, or a King in this case, bedded four sister! lol

  9. This sounds SO good! I love fictional books based on real life events and anything in this time and setting is fascinating. On my wishlist it goes! Also, I want to buy that hotel!

    1. Fantastic! Invite her to your blog too, she's a fantastic intervewee

  10. I know very little about this time period but this sounds so up my alley! I think I would love it too!

    1. I hope you read the excerpt, it'll whet your appetite some more

  11. Braine, you've totally enthralled me with your review and this very insightful, interesting interview. I bet this author interviewing the sisters would be hilarious. Great job!!

    1. Interview her! The novel is so fascinating, to me anyways. I have a weird obsession with Royals

  12. Not usually my cuppa (the cheating, but that is the point here, right?) but I do enjoy historical fiction. Hm... I do think by having that fact list next to me I would really like this book. I love little fun facts like that.

    1. I feel you, but this isn't really a romance story although it's a story about love.

  13. I want want want! This is definitely on my must-get list. This is my type of historical fiction. And just getting to know some of the facts, will be nice. Scandalous! Great review.

  14. I'm not big on historical fiction but this one sounds really good. The rivalry between the sisters sounds crazy. I may have to check this one out. Great review!

    1. Oh yes! I can only blame their parents for their upbringing lol

  15. This sounds like the type of historical fiction that I would read. I like that the sisters are all acting like they are related by accident. It sounds like you really enjoyed. Good review.

    Grace @ Books of Love

  16. Woah, four sisters as mistresses? That would have been crazy! Interesting how this one is based on historical events as well.

    1. I still can't wrap my head around it. Real life is stranger than fiction sometimes.

  17. I am quite fond of multiple point of views as long as they have a distinctive voice, so I would probably enjoy that part. Those letters between chapters sound well done. It also sounds fun how it's based on real historic events. Great Review!

    1. Like I told Jeann, real life is tranger than fiction... most of the time

  18. Ooh- this sounds so intriguing! It's been a while since I read a really good historical. Added it to my TBR!

    1. Try a sample. I got hooked from the first chapter

  19. I'm not really into historicals these days but it sounds like a good book.

  20. This sounds gooooooooood, and at first I was expecting a real kinky read, but I love the sound of the sisters and different povs.

  21. How very interesting! It's not the kind of book I usually go for, but I'm certainly curious!

    1. Take a walk on the dark side and give this a go :)

  22. I don't know, not sure if it's for me. But I enjoyed the interview.

  23. This one sounds like something I could enjoy. Great interview!


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