In this historical novel set in 18th-century France, the mistress of a powerful aristocrat becomes caught between her principles and prosperity.
Henriette d’Augustin is one of several mistresses kept by Duc Hugo d’Amboise and, as a result, lives a life of comfortable leisure in his chateau with her daughter, Solange. But the Duc becomes infatuated with his most recent romantic addition, Letitia du Massenet, “ravishing and virginal,” who “possesses an uncommon wit for a girl of eighteen.” The Duc desperately pines for a son, one thing his wife, Charlotte, despite years of effort, has proven unable to give him. She feels predictably threatened by Letitia’s hold on her husband. Charlotte is encouraged by Madame Céline de Poitiers, another mistress who is worried that she too will be cast aside and left penniless, to conspire against Letitia. Their collaborative efforts grow increasingly diabolical, all the more so after Letitia becomes pregnant. Charlotte recruits the help of Romain de Villiers, an old friend and tarot reader with whom she engages in an illicit romance. Murdoch (Stone Circle, 2017) deftly portrays the unenviable way in which Henriette becomes entangled in the web of Charlotte’s campaign to ruin Letitia. Henriette wants to defend Letitia, who is sorely dependent on the Duc for funds, but is wary of crossing Charlotte, for whom loyalty is a zero-sum game. Henriette has her livelihood, reputation, and daughter to protect as well as a closely guarded secret that, if uncovered, could spell her downfall. The author expertly re-creates high-society France at the beginning of the 18th century—this is a well-researched and historically valid depiction. In addition, she skillfully keeps the plot a tensile cord of suspense, revealing and concealing just enough to keep readers immersed and guessing. And while she doesn’t break any new literary ground, this book isn’t an overly sentimental iteration of the genre. Consider Henriette’s counsel to Letitia: “You see child, men are quite stupid and simple. They do not plan, devise, or see subtleties the way we do. This is our advantage.”
A historically authentic and intelligently crafted period drama that’s romantically stirring.