The Shadow Queen
Set in 17th century France during the reign of the Sun King, The Shadow Queen chronicles the life of Claudette des Oeillets, a woman whose childhood was spent travelling the French countryside as part of her family’s acting troupe and whose adult life included time spent as personal servant to Louis XIV’s mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan.
After the death of her father, Claudette and her family move to Paris, where they find work in a famous Parisian theatre. Despite Claudette being afforded the opportunity to work with some of France’s greatest playwrights and perform for members of the French court, players are looked down upon by society and banished from the Church. It is this section of the novel that proves to be the most rewarding, as Gulland vividly brings the colourful personalities and politics of the 17th-century theatre to life.
Through her life in the theatre, Claudette comes to the attention of Athénaïs de Montespan. Deciding to leave the theatre behind, Claudette agrees to serve as personal attendant to Athénaïs, who as mistress to Louis XIV is one of the most powerful women in France. Athénaïs’ need to maintain power at any cost, however, prompts Claudette to reconsider her own position. Although set at court, given that the narrative is told from Claudette’s perspective, the reader doesn’t get much of a feel for court life or how Athénaïs interacts in it. As a result, the context for some of Athénaïs’ actions, which always involve Claudette, is absent.
While The Shadow Queen is ostensibly about Claudette, it is Athénaïs who proves to be the more compelling of the two characters. As a result, when Athénaïs’ principal part in the narrative came to an end I didn’t find the story as engaging.