September 2009

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise D’Aubigne, Madamde de Maintenon by Veronica Buckley

From her ignoble birth as the child of a jailer’s daughter and her prisoner husband, Françoise D’Aubigne rose to become the unacknowledged wife of the king of France, Louis XIV. Veronica Buckley’s The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: François D’Aubigne, Madame de Maintenon delves deeply into the minutiae of 17th century French history to describe Françoise’s remarkable life and the context in which she lived and moved. 

More than half of the book describes Françoise’s early life -- her tumultuous childhood with an indifferent mother and wastrel father. Constant D’Aubigne, an inconstant man, spent much of Françoise’s childhood in prison and the rest pursuing various schemes to acquire wealth, including an attempt to claim an island in the Caribbean. Constant ended abandoning the family entirely and died penniless in Orange (then an independent principality) without returning to France. Françoise’s mother, Jeanne, was indifferent at best and abusive at worst, reserving all of her affection and attention for her eldest son Constant, who eventually committed suicide. Her younger son, Charles, followed much in his father’s footsteps, although he stayed more or less on the right side of the law. The most steady and constant source of affection in young Françoise’s life came from her Protestant aunt and uncle, who instilled in her an unusual level of religious tolerance for the time.

This unsteady childhood shaped much of Françoise’s character, including her generosity, her desire to be loved and cared for, and her faith, themes that pervade Buckley’s telling of her life. Buckley’s account is filled with small details of daily life and the individuals in Françoise’s life, drawn from letters, journals, and other accounts of the time. She regularly provides the broader context of events, people, and social mores of the time.

Françoise married the ill and disabled writer Paul Scarron, a marriage that gained her the status of a wife and some financial security, although they were more friends or teacher and pupil than romantically involved. During this time, Françoise carefully composed a public persona and reputation for herself -- eating only herring on Fridays, for example, to present the impression of great piety. After Scarron’s death, Françoise adopted a livelier lifestyle. She resisted becoming a kept mistress, although she was close to Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress and mother of several of his illegitimate children.   

Louis XIV married Françoise privately after the death of his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse -- due to the difference in their social status, he could not publicly acknowledge Françoise as wife or grant her the title of queen, although he was clearly in love with her and she with him. Buckley describes her relationship with Louis and her influence on his actions as king, as well as her projects, with as much carefully researched detail as her early life and first marriage. Buckley portrays Françoise as a woman of intelligence and forethought, compassionate, but also driven by her childhood need to be loved. Although the book is somewhat dense at times, the care with which Buckley paints a picture of the late 17th century in France is impressive. The text is punctuated with moments of humor and pithy quotes from letters and journals. 

The Secret Wife of Louis XIV is a fine piece of historical writing, assured and insightful, and provides a glimpse not only of the life of an unusual woman, but also of the exciting times in which she lived. The Secret Wife of Louis XIV is a particularly fascinating read for anyone who enjoyed Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances, particularly The Man in the Iron Mask, as it discusses the reality of many of the events and characters portrayed fictionally by Dumas. 

The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise D’Aubigne, Madame de Maintenon by Veronica Buckley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374158309
528 Pages