The Rivals of Versailles

Written by Sally Christie
Review by Francesca Pelaccia

The Rivals of Versailles, the second book in the Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, tells the story of King Louis XV’s most powerful mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, better known as the Marquise de Pompadour. The novel charts the Marquise’s early life from the instant she is told by a fortuneteller that she will become the king’s lover, and her mother’s lover begins plotting her way to the King’s bed. The story follows her to her place at Versailles, where she becomes the king’s official mistress but earns the scorn of the nobility; to her inability to give the king a child and legitimize herself in her own eyes; and to her death about 18 years later, in 1764. But the Marquise isn’t just any mistress. She acts as confidante, political advisor, and right hand to the king and is indispensable to him in affairs of the country, his personal life and his sexual exploits. When the Marquise can’t provide the king with sexual favors any more, she sets up a brothel for him and chooses his lovers.

The Rivals of Versailles reads like a memoir in the form of a novel. It is told from the Marquise’s first-person point of view but shifts for several chapters to the viewpoints of many of her most significant rivals, which leads to some confusion. Apart from this, the novel is both intriguing and engaging. The immense, often obscene opulence of the nobility comes through strongly, including their backstabbing, the ridicule of the bourgeoisie, and their attempts to climb up the social ladder, as well as the abject poverty of the peasant class. Hints of the despair of the peasants, including the beginning of social unrest, are hinted at, but the novel stays centered on the Marquise and her unusual relationship with the king.