April 24, 2012

The Kings' Mistresses by Elizabeth Goldsmith


The Mancini Sisters, Marie and Hortense, were born in Rome, brought to the court of Louis XIV of France, and strategically married off by their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, to secure his political power base. Such was the life of many young women of the age: they had no independent status under the law and were entirely a part of their husband’s property once married.

Marie and Hortense, however, had other ambitions in mind altogether. Miserable in their marriages and determined to live independently, they abandoned their husbands in secret and began lives of extraordinary daring on the run and in the public eye. The beguiling sisters quickly won the affections of noblemen and kings alike. Their flight became popular fodder for salon conversation and tabloids, and was closely followed by seventeenth-century European society. The Countess of Grignan remarked that they were traveling “like two heroines out of a novel.” Others gossiped that they “were roaming the countryside in pursuit of wandering lovers.”

In the 17th-century, sisters Marie and Hortense Mancini married into wealth and nobility, but they soon discovered themselves desperately unhappy with their abusive husbands. Divorce at the time, was available, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire and fraught with scandal.  Left with little choice, the two women fled, at times in each other’s company, and other times alone. From Italy, France, and England, the women travelled and lived the high life, visiting and finding refuge in some of Europe’s most elite families. They found love in the arms of kings. They indulged themselves in love affairs, gambling, hunting, and art collecting, much to the gossiping delight of the world that could not help but be fascinating with the wild freedom of these two women.

But as they moved from home to home, or castle to castle, their husbands tracked them, thrusting impediments and threats in their path, forcing them into convents or withdrawing all money, or entering into negotiations to force them into submission. Somehow, they managed to dodge the courts and their husband’s attempts to squash their seized independence.

The author did an impeccable job of researching and tracking the travels of these two fascinating women. The book takes us on a journey with them from country to country, court to court, and home to home. However, it is quite academic in nature and brushes too briefly over their actual escapades. What I mean by that, is I got a wonderful picture of their actual travels, but very little about what truly made them notorious, where they flaunted societal standards, and why the world was so enchanted by their mischief. Nevertheless, this was a fabulous book that takes the reader into the courts of kings for a first hand glimpse of the world in 17th century Europe.  

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