Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV
By Karleen Koen
I’ve always had a soft spot for the antics of the French court even more so than the English courts and I’m the type of person who can’t turn down a story about the Tudors. In books revolving around the monarchy, whether French or English, one can’t have a story without a mistress and let’s all agree that’s what makes the story. Isn’t that why these books are so much fun? Oh, it is and Koen doesn’t disappoint.
Cardinal Mazarin, the French prime minister, is dead and Louis XIV, only twenty-two years-old, is now king of France and a king with power. That power is not yet firmly grasped but he’s intent on learning to yield it fully. Unaware of many of the financial arrangements his mother and the Cardinal made while ruling in his stead, he’s in for a surprise when he finally takes it upon himself to investigate. Unsure of his financial minister’s monetary affairs and how mingled they are with the crown’s accounts, he has suspicions and employs a faithful counselor to help him sort through the courtly promises and financial advice being offered.
To add another distraction, Louis has fallen in love with his brother Philippe’s wife, Princess Henriette, a woman captivating not only the king but the entire French court. A man not used to being denied, Louis attempts to make Henriette his mistress against the wishes of not only his brother but also his mother who believes it will be his downfall. Married to a woman he greatly admires for her breeding and royal pedigree, unfortunately, he doesn’t truly love her and is looking for a distraction she can’t provide. He knows it’s the idea of passion and surprise that comes from his illicit affair with Henriette but Louis can’t help himself. To calm the court, Henriette suggests he flirt with one of her maids; a shy but very pretty young woman named Louise. Then something happens he didn’t expect — Louis finds he might have fallen in love.
Before Versailles started slowly for but it was almost as if it was waiting for Louis to find his footing as king and once he found his confidence, so did the story. While the affair between Louis and Henriette is more intense, the affair with Louise is completely the opposite but in a way more satisfying. All the court intrigue requirements needed for a story like this are met and then some. Oddly, the financial scandal is also quite good, adding a harder edge to what is mostly a love story. It’s a nice contrast for Louis as he grows into his role as a king and what he’s dealing with on the political level makes you see why he craves love in the quieter parts of his life. I was happy to see the political elements here. In stories about kings and mistresses it sometimes gets pushed to the side and becomes background noise. Here that doesn’t happen and it’s refreshing. There is a small side story involving Louise that feels slightly out of place but it’s the only stumble in an otherwise entertaining book.
I read a lot of historical fiction and I love when authors find a way to make well-known figures interesting and intense characters that allow you to imagine another life for that person. Koen does that with Louis XIV. I finished wanting to know more about the king that would build the palace of Versailles. That can be difficult to accomplish sometimes.