Book: The Kings’ Mistresses by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith
Sisters. Royalty. Feisty, independent women ahead of their time. What was not for me to love?
As very young girls, Marie and Hortense Mancini left their native Italy and relocated to France in order to boost the family status of their uncle, the exceedingly powerful Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Though not exactly members of French royal society themselves, the girls nonetheless enjoyed friendships with its members. Most particularly, Marie, as a late teenager, became a close friend and eventual mistress of Louis XIV. Louis, of course, needed to marry royalty, so ultimately the Cardinal made sure the relationship ended and had Marie married off to the Italian Prince Lorenzo Colonna. Likewise, a suitable marriage was found for the beautiful Hortense, to the much older Armand-Charles de La Meilleraye, who became the Duke Mazarin upon the Cardinal’s death. Marie’s marriage briefly worked, but Hortense’s was a disaster from the start. In time, both women would leave their husbands, seek legal protection from them, wander the continent going from convent to convent (the only places they could legally live away from their husbands), and write their memoirs. In time, Hortense journeyed to England and for a while was a mistress of Charles II. All of these behaviors were scandalous, and thus one of the things that makes these ladies so interesting.
I found this book to be an easy and fascinating read. Often biographies involving royalty contain so many players that it can be hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my mind. Not so here. Miss Goldsmith keeps to her central figures in a simple and direct style. Of course, it helps that her central figures were so interesting. Marie and Hortense were not revolutionaries—they did not seek women’s rights or advocate a particular cause. Their lives were intended to follow the feminine narrative prescribed for centuries. However, when faced with unbearable marital situations, they went off script and—gasp!—sought personal justice. While they never got exactly the redress they sought, the mere fact that did not accept the status quo and tried to do something about it makes them objects of my admiration.