The story of the 17th-century version of the Kardashian sisters, but with the added touch of brains, literacy and class.
Marie and Hortense Mancini were rebellious sisters who married well, fled their abusive husbands and spent the rest of their lives on the run, together or separately, soaking up the good life and turning their lives into international gossip. For Goldsmith (French/Boston Univ.; Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France, 1995, etc.) they were “arguably the first media celebrities,” and they received a suitably mixed reception: “admired by libertines, feminists and free-thinkers but viewed by others as frivolous at best and threats to civil society at worst.” Born to the Roman aristocracy, they were taken to France by their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, a savvy political operator with an eye to his own future, who hoped to marry them off. The elder Marie caught the fancy of Louis XIV, but his mother Queen Anne wouldn’t have it; Marie had to settle instead for the Italian price Lorenzo Colonna, who wasn’t about to let marriage keep him from other women. The younger Hortense drew the attention of England's Charles II, then in exile. However, she ended up with Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye, a bullying religious fanatic twice her age; the arrangement made her “the richest heiress and the unhappiest woman in Christendom.” After their escapes from their unhappy marriages, the sisters played an elaborate cat-and-mouse game across Europe as their incensed husbands appealed to the authorities, dispatched spies, made threats and attempted kidnappings. The sisters dodged their husbands, indulged their whims and wrote celebrity tell-alls, possibly another first. Though the narrative could have used a lighter authorial touch, the story moves along at a swift pace.
Goldsmith’s reserved, professional prose works against the rollicking nature of the tale, but the fascinating subjects make up for it.