Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun is the historical fiction account of Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. Tomboy Louise, a noted horsewoman of nobile but impoverished birth, eventually finds herself serving Madame Henriette, the king’s sister-in-law at court. There she catches the eye of Louis himself and a love affair is born. Louise is one of the first mistresses of the young Louis. She is pious and her piety struggles with her love for the man, her dislike for the King and her fear that evil stalks her for her wanton behavior. Louise finally chooses to save her soul and herself and renounces the king for life in a convent.
Gulland’s book was a little slow to get going and a tad difficult to get into at first, but once Louise makes it to court, the action speeds up. She is part of the early years of Louis’ reign when Louis is young and full of energy and the desire to do good. There is no Versailles yet. Tomboy Louise, meek and angelic in appearance, seems an unlikely candidate for Louis’ eye, yet she does and keeps it for years. It was a bit disconcerting to read her declare her love for Louis on one page and then strive to avoid hurting the queen, Louis’ wife, on the other. I doubt many royal mistresses would be so considerate. She suffers in silence…she is Louis’ mistress before he began flaunting them, and as a result, his liaisons with her and the resulting childbirths are secret. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. To give birth and then get up and attend a ball, acting as if nothing had happened. Forced to give up your child to others to raise because he or she might be used as a pawn. I had a lot of sympathy for Louise. Though I still found it hard to understand exactly what attracted the king to her.
Gulland also weaves a strand of the supernatural throughout the book. Louise attempts to tame a wild horse through bone magic in her youth and when it succeeds, she fears the evil she committed stalks her. That she herself is evil and damned. Her life and time at court is intertwined with that of Athenais de Montespan, at first friend and later rival and also mistress of the king who is connected with witchcraft.
Gulland’s tale is interesting, and she takes what little is known of Louise and creates an engrossing narrative. There is a dreamy quality to the book that prevents most of it from seeming real. At times it reads more like an intriguing novel set in 17th century France instead of a work of historical fiction based on the life of a real woman.