Thomas’ latest (Farewell, My Queen, 2003, etc.) illuminates an obscure corner of Western European royal history: the bartering of child brides and grooms.
In 1721, Mariana Victoria, the 3-year-old infanta of Spain, is married by proxy to King Louis XV of France, then only 11. The two are first cousins, descendants of the Spanish and French branches of the Bourbon dynasty. Mariana Victoria, with her cherished Carmen-Doll and a magnificent entourage, journeys to France, where she will live at various royal palaces (Versailles is her least favorite). The architect of this union, the Duc D’Orléans, Louis' uncle and regent until the king attains majority at 13, has sweetened the deal by adding his own daughter, Louise Élisabeth, to the mix—she is sent to Spain to marry her second cousin Don Luis the Prince of Asturia, Mariana's half brother and heir to the Spanish throne. Louise is 12, Don Luis, 14. Thomas skillfully extracts dramatic moments from the ponderous mechanics of nuptial diplomacy. On arrival in Spain, the French ambassador, Saint-Simon, gets lost in Alcázar, the mazelike royal palace of King Philip V, and detests Spain’s pervasive “[stink] of olive oil.” On Pheasant Island in the river Bidasoa, the princesses meet while crossing the border in opposite directions. Mariana finds an unlikely mentor in the shrewd, 70-year-old Princess Palatine, the regent's mother. Even more than most royal arranged marriages, these two unions seem doomed from the start. Not only must consummation of Louis and Mariana's marriage be put off for several years, threatening the succession (which is one reason D’Orléans, next in line for the throne, favored the match), but Louis prefers men anyway. Louise also prefers her own sex and has physical and mental health issues, including an exhibitionist streak. The infanta, though articulate beyond her years, seems to have stopped growing. Although the narrative pace is that of an intricate multipanel tapestry, the characters are brought to life in all their frailty. Cullen’s translation ably mirrors Thomas’ arch, scandalmongering style.
A meticulous and vivid chronicle.