In a strong debut, Hilton brings new color to the cheeks of Athénaïs-Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, the woman who named herself for Athena, captured a king, delivered his children, finessed a queen, and fought with ferocious intelligence and political skill to maintain her precarious position at Versailles.
Hilton, 27, writes with the confidence of a veteran historian about a set of extraordinarily complicated events. Showing a facility with French language, culture, politics, and history, she fashions an exciting tale of a woman who employed her stunning beauty, sexual inventiveness, and incomparable guile to advance herself and her consequent—and ungrateful—children. Her toxic sons were inconvenienced by her death, and one of them raced to her bed, ripped from her still-warm neck a key to her desk, unlocked it, and galloped away with the contents. Hilton does a solid job of reconstructing Athénaïs’s childhood and of charting her rise in Louis’s court. At first the smitten monarch visited her in disguise, but soon the relationship was known by all. It was a different time, adultery-wise: The king traveled in a coach populated not just with his wife (the “dull and dumpy” Marie-Thèrése) but also with once and future mistresses. When Athénaïs met Louis, she was, inconveniently, married to an abusive gambler. But he was convinced to disappear, and Athénaïs found herself living in Versailles in service to Louis XIV, sometimes thrice daily. Alas, Athénaïs delivered nine children, lost her looks, lost her position, and devoted herself to charity—a sequence Hilton chronicles with compassion. Her love of the arts enhances her descriptions of pageantry, furniture, fashion, and architecture, though those who don’t know French will not enjoy having to visit the endnotes for translations. And some will wonder, too, why Hilton’s descriptions of unattractive people are written with such patent relish.
Still, a compelling portrait of an astounding figure. (8 pp. b&w photographs)