Precious Pawn

Written by Mary Martin Devlin
Review by Fiona Alison

“Can fortune fail to shine on a face like that?” In 1743, with visions of her extraordinary beauty dancing in his head, the degenerate compte de Fautrière removes his 14-year-old daughter from a convent and grooms her as mistress to Louis XV, notorious for his “affaires du Coeur.” But the motive is neither altruism nor love. The compte only favors himself and his philandering Parisian lifestyle. Eager to please her indulgent father, young Diane revels in a world of tutors, musicians, brocade gowns, and extravagant wigs. But in an age when fortunes are made and unmade on the basis of rumor alone, the plan goes awry and Diane is banished to the country with an uncouth bourgeois husband.

Based on the unpublished memoirs of an unnamed 18th-century countess, the novel documents Diane’s rise, romances, and inevitable downfall. There is a subplot, starring her spiteful smallpox-scarred sister, which cleverly reflects on Diane’s flawless perfection, and reminds us of the transience of all this indiscriminate decadence. Beauty, after all, is only skin deep! Moreover, this story tells of the sad fate of women played like pawns in games of power and greed. A compelling and evocative novel, I was hooked, on page 6, by the description of the rakishly flamboyant compte. Although potentially an explicit book, Devlin doesn’t indulge in graphic sexuality (bar a few lewd scenes). But the descriptive narrative is gorgeous and I recommend you bask for a while in the elegance (and naughtiness) of the age.