Monsieur Montespan: A Novel – Jean Teulé

18 May 2011

The Marquis de Montespan and his new wife, Athénaïs, are a true love-match – a rarity amongst the nobility of seventeenth-century France. But love is not enough to maintain their hedonistic lifestyle, and the couple soon face huge debts. When Madame de Montespan is offered the chance to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen at Versailles, she seizes this opportunity to turn their fortunes round.

Too late, Montespan discovers that his ravishing wife has caught the eye of King Louis XIV. As everyone congratulates him on his new status of cuckold by royal appointment, the Marquis is broken-hearted. He vows to wreak revenge on the monarch and win back his adored Marquise. With this extraordinary novel, Jean Teulé has restored a ridiculed figure from history to the rightful position of hero, by telling the hilarious, bawdy and touching story of a good man who loved too well and dared challenge the absolute power of the Sun King himself.

I was really excited when I got an email offering me a review copy of the novel Monsieur Montespan by Jean Teulé as I had never heard of this book before and was also pretty thrilled that someone had written about the court of Louis XIV and his love affair with Madame de Montespan from a different point of view.

This is an intriguing and evocative novel that easily draws you into the magnificent, jostling and often insalubrious Paris and Versailles of the seventeenth century and places you at the very heart of the action as you walk the gorgeous galleries or through refuse strewn, noisy streets shoulder to shoulder with the unfortunate and oddly charming Monsieur Montespan of the title, one of the most famous cuckolds of all time who took the rare stance of kicking up a bit of a fuss when his wife fell into bed with the King, rather than obligingly melting into the shadows as other men did.

No, instead of bowing and letting the King have his way, Montespan immediately went into mourning for his wife, challenged the incredulous and embarrassed Louis to a duel, drove about with a cuckold’s antlers fixed to the roof of his carriage and ordered an annual Requiem Mass to be said for the very much alive Madame de Montespan. More annoyingly though, whereas the King’s previous mistress Louise de la Vallière had been honoured with the title of Duchesse de la Vallière in thanks for her efforts in the royal bedchamber, the Marquis de Montespan took pleasure in refusing to accept the title of Duc, meaning that Athénaïs, to her great chagrin could not have the Duchesse title that she longed for and the perks that it would have given her at court.

If you’re looking for a description of the splendours of Louis XIV’s court at Versailles then you’ve come to the right place but be warned that this comes with a side helping of no holds barred descriptions of the rather repulsive, venal and quaintly unhygienic society of the time.

It’s a great book though, that paints its characters vividly and with humour and affection. You may not like them very much but you will absolutely believe in them. I came away feeling much sympathy for Monsieur de Montespan but conflicted about his beautiful wife, Athénaïs – to be honest, I never know what to make of her as on one hand I am mesmerised by her beauty and wit but on the other, the allegations of involvement in grim Satanic rites are distressing and absolutely turn my stomach.

Monsieur Montespan was a huge bestseller in France under its original title Monsieur de Montespan (we do understand the significance of the aristocratic ‘de’ but never mind) before being translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published in English by Gallic Books.

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