Though it purports to be the story of Louis XIV’s second official mistress, Athénais de Montespan (the story of the first official mistress, Louise de La Vallière, having been told in Gulland’s 2008 novel, Mistress of the Sun), The Shadow Queen is really a view from the sidelines, related by Athénais’s personal maid and confidante, Claude des Oeillets (Claudette, as she’s known to friends and family).
We first meet Claude at age 12. The daughter of two actors, she lives a hardscrabble existence, travelling around the country with her parents and “simpleton” brother, Gaston. Gulland paints a bleak picture of life for actors, who are considered immoral, the women on par with prostitutes (which, to be fair, they often were). Still, the family seems happy. Despite being barred from the Church, Claude’s parents are devout and have a strong sense of pride that prevents them from sliding into thievery to survive. “There are things we do not do,” Claude’s father tells her, “things we will not do.”
When Claude’s father dies, the burden of caring for the family falls to her. Most of the book, in fact, is about Claude taking care of others. “Was this to be my life?” she wonders. “Forever scrambling to make ends meet, looking after Mother and my hapless brother, only to die an old maid?” She is presented as quick-witted, her theatrical training giving her the ability to interpret nuances in speech and gesture, and to shift easily into different roles as needed. These skills come in handy when she secures employment for herself and her family with a Paris theatre troupe and, later on, when she must play by the rules of etiquette dictated by the unfamiliar world of the nobility.
It’s obvious that Gulland has done her research, devoting much of the novel’s word count to explaining the intricacies of stagecraft, the plays performed at the time, and the competition between playwrights Molière, Corneille, and Racine. As interesting as this lesson in 17th-century theatre history is, the first half of the novel drags, perhaps because Athénais makes only a brief appearance, when she and Claude meet for the first time as children (an experience that stays with Claude, who comes to think of Athénais as “her princess”).
When the two finally reunite 10 years later, Claude is once again taken with Athénais. Gulland plays with this attraction, leaving its exact nature open to interpretation. Claude frequently waxes poetic about Athénais: “Her beauty was heart-stopping, her large blue eyes intelligent and curious.” But she is equally effusive about her lifestyle: “The blessed world of the nobility – a world without hunger, a world without want.” Whatever the draw, when Athénais asks Claude to work for her as a seamstress, she is unable to resist. Eventually, she becomes the noblewoman’s suivant, or personal maid, and takes a place of prominence at Court.
For the first time, Claude has beautiful clothes, more than enough to eat, and a solid roof over her head. But she often finds herself in situations that go against her moral code. Though Claude initially struggles with fulfilling some of Athénais’s demands, her sense of duty (to her mistress, but also to her dependent family) wins out. When Athénais, unable to “entertain” the king one day, asks Claude (still a virgin in her thirties) to take her place, she ultimately gives her assent. Claude’s response is matter-of-fact, if slightly bitter: “So: oui, of course, I would do it, have congress with His Majesty, offer relief. How hard could it be?” But her remorse is palpable after the deed is done and the king leaves a jewelled ring next to the bed for her trouble. “I am a whore, I thought, slipping it on to my finger, wondering how much I could get for it. Forgive me, Maman.”
While Claude can be charming at times, her voice never varies, despite the fact that she ages more than 30 years over the course of the novel. We are also limited by her point of view. The sections set in the theatre fare better in terms of context and detail, but life at Court remains obscure. Relevant information about the political climate and changes to the monarchy under Louis XIV’s rule is parcelled out in dribbles.
Athénais, too, is not as fully fleshed out as she could be. Even her sway over the king (whom Gulland presents as being hen-pecked and in a constant state of weariness) is akin to that of a shrieking fishwife. Promised an insider’s view of one of the most notorious women in French history, complete with intrigue, scandal, and magic, readers may be disappointed by the narrative’s rather tepid tone and uneven attention to historical detail.