I love a good story about women pushing the boundaries in times past, especially when they are based on real people. The Kings' Mistresses is the true tale of two sisters: Marie Mancini and her younger sister Hortense, the nieces of one of the most powerful men in seventeenth century France, Cardinal Mazarin (a protégé of Richelieu.) In 1653 Marie, "a dark-haired and intelligent-looking adolescent of thirteen" and Hortense, "a mere child of six, with curly black hair and striking in her delicate beauty" left their home in Rome to travel to Paris. It was the first of many journeys in their fascinating lives.
The "Kings" of the title are Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England. The adolescent Marie enchanted the young Louis while he convalesced from a dangerous illness and they began a romantic relationship. Hortense captured the affections of Charles as a mature woman after escaping to the English court to avoid the legal machinations of her husband.
The subtitle of this intriguing biography reads: "The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin" and explains the theme of this bookliberation and women's rights in seventeenth century Europe. The tabloids and personal gossips of the day followed the sisters' travels and adventures closely. Why? They dared to leave abusive husbands and live independent livessomething "not done" in those times (and frowned upon by some elements of today's society.) They flouted convention, traveled disguised as men, disputed with their husbands in court and publicly took on "protectors."
Goldsmith became interested in these two women while researching a historical study on French women writers. They were among the first women to openly publish their life stories and sign their own names. She had access to an enormous trove of letters from the sisters, their relatives and friends; carefully preserved by their descendants. Goldsmith uses a chronological approach to the biography mostly alternating chapters about the lives of the sisters as both women travel from place to place (but seldom together) escaping their pursuing husbands.
I enjoyed this well-written and well-researched tale, but it left me wanting more. It's a relatively short book (226 pages not counting notes and index), to cover two women's lives. Given the material available to Goldsmith, I would have liked more excerpts from the sisters' writing. There is also room for more analysis on societal norms and customs of the times. Were laws changed? Expectations altered? Did other women follow in their footsteps? It would have been nice to see what influence the sisters had on other women and society in general. But what is provided is fascinating and well-told.
- Title: The Kings' Mistresses: the Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin
- Author: Elizabeth C. Goldsmith
- Publisher: PublicAffairs (member of Perseus Book Group)
- ISBN: 978-1-58648-889-5
- Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
- Cover Price: $26.99