Gulland, author of a trilogy starring Josephine Bonaparte (The Last Great Dance on Earth, 2000, etc.), turns her attention to Louise de la Vallière, most beloved mistress of Louis XIV.
Louise, nicknamed “Petite” because of her slight stature, was born to lower nobility in Tours, France. From childhood she displays a love of horses, and she tames her unruly white stallion Diablo by dosing him with so-called “Bone Magic”—in effect “gentling” the beast by making a Devil’s bargain. This becomes the occasionally overworked motif of Petite’s later romantic career. Her father’s death and Diablo’s disappearance trigger the chain of events leading her into Louis XIV’s bed. Petite’s impoverished mother entrusts her to a convent, then reclaims her when marriage to a marquis improves her fortunes. The marquis’s household serves Gaston, Duc D’Orléans, and Petite becomes maid to Gaston’s daughter, Marguerite, whom Gaston hopes will marry young King Louis. When Louis weds a Spanish princess, Marguerite has to settle for a Medici. Chasing a runaway colt, Petite encounters Louis, mistaking him for a forest poacher. When he compliments her on her horsewomanship, she’s smitten. After Gaston dies without a male heir, his estate reverts to the Crown. Petite is called to the Sun King’s court to wait upon Henriette, wife of Philippe, Louis’s younger brother. Petite, slightly lame but an accomplished dancer, stars in Louis’s ballets. At first piously resisting their growing mutual infatuation, Petite succumbs when she’s again alone in the woods with Louis. From then on she walks a delicate political line at Court. Rudimentary contraceptive practices of the day fail. Keeping her pregnancies and confinement secret, she stoically bears Louis four children. Louis legitimizes the surviving two, making Petite a duchess. Petite’s chief rival for the king is someone she least suspects, who ensnares Louis by witchcraft—poetic justice for Petite’s dabbling in the dark arts.
Exhaustive descriptions of court protocol, meals and entertainments slow the narrative at times, but, all in all, this is a fine telling, bolstered by the strength and sensitivity of Gulland’s characterizations.