The King's Way
As a legal adviser for the French Council of State, Françoise Chandernagor is familiar with historical research and documents. As a result, her re-creation of the life of Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, has an aura of authority. Chandernagor’s task of assembling Madame de Maintenon’s correspondence, which included almost eighty volumes; the memoirs of her secretary and niece, Madame de Caylus; and the records of such royal memorists as Madame de Sévigné and Saint Simon, is monumental. In her first novel, Chandernagor succeeds masterfully in re-creating seventeenth century France in its glory and squalor. She draws a vivid portrait of court and court politics and introduces her readers to the luminaries of their day through the eyes of Madame de Maintenon, who knew everyone of importance. Consequently, as history The King’s Way (published in France in 1981 as L’Allée du roi) both informs and fascinates. As a novel, unfortunately, it fails to create a sufficiently vivid sense of its central figure and narrator, Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon, celebrated for her wit as well as her beauty. Chandernagor’s creation lacks the brilliance which her original must have possessed in order to have become the most powerful woman in France. Perhaps the author’s ambitious research overwhelmed her creative imagination; the narrative character never entirely captures the reader’s sympathetic imagination, although there is no question that the story of Madame de Maintenon and her times is thoroughly fascinating.
From its beginning, Françoise d’Aubigné’s life was improbable. She was born in 1635 in Noirt prison, where her father was an inmate. Though a member of the minor nobility, he was wildly profligate—a murderer, thief, traitor, and con artist who never troubled very much about his children. Françoise’s mother thrust her daughter upon the charity of her aunt and uncle, the Villettes, frugal Huguenots, with whom the child remained until she was nine. Early in her life, Françoise was taught her precarious social position. She was a Catholic in a Huguenot family, a girl without dowry or prospects who must make the best of her situation. By the time she was twelve, Françoise was schooled in close observation, patience, poverty, deception, and humility. Out of this was born a fierce ambition. Given the choice of entering a convent or marrying, sixteen-year-old Françoise wed Paul Scarron, a crippled, middle-aged satirist and wit. Then her second education began, for Scarron not only encouraged her reading but also introduced her to politics and Parisian society. As Madame Scarron, Françoise cultivated the social skills and contacts which later brought her to court as the governess to the royal bastards and culminated in her marriage to Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Throughout The King’s Way, politics are Machiavellian and inescapable, as parties align themselves for or against Cardinal Mazarin, the king’s favorite mistress, and much later his possible successor. Everyone and everything falls under political influence, from gaining a license to manufacture gold to having a religious preference and marrying. Emerging from Chandernagor’s novel are rationales for such momentous decisions as Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which again outlawed Protestantism in France, and his justification for continuing the War of Spanish Succession.
Important as it is, the political scene does not dominate the foreground of this novel; it remains masked by the surface monotony of daily activities: card games, chitchat, desultory gossip. Nevertheless, there is a restless sense of networks, scheming, and backbiting to attain position—all conducted in the open. There are few secrets at court. Indeed, there are few secrets in society. When rumors of her growing influence begin, Madame de Maintenon issues disclaimers of political interest. She pleads reluctance—at times ineptitude—while all along she sways the king’s judgment. A perceptive analyst and astute judge of politics, she quickly adopts a background role, giving the king credit for decisions. (Thus, she exercised power in the only way a woman could during that era.)
(The entire section is 1736 words.)