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Review: The Kings' Mistresses, by Elizabeth Goldsmith

Pages: 256
Original date of publication: 2012
My edition: 2012 (Public Affairs)
Why I decided to read: offered through the LTER program
How I acquired my copy: review copy from LTER, April 2012

“A woman’s reputation depends on not being talked about.” So went the first line of Hortense Mazarin’s memoirs, belying the fact that much of her life, and that of her sister, Marie Mancini, was lived in the public eye, talked about and written about in the public gazettes. Both sisters bucked the traditions of the time by running away and seeking divorces from their husbands. The nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, Hortense and Marie made an impact early on at the French court, where Marie had a love affair with the King. A review of the book in a blurb on the back from Kirkus Reviews compares the two sisters to the Kardashians—a not unfair comparison.

I think it would be a clichĂ© to say that a work of nonfiction is written as though it’s fiction, but the story of Marie and Hortense is written in an easy-flowing, exciting, and informative way. I didn’t know anything about the sisters before reading this book, but I enjoyed tracking their adventures through Italy, France, England, and Spain—some of which made me thing that the Mazarin/Mancini sisters had been reading too much popular fiction of the day (at one point one of them and her maid dress as men in their travels to escape detection). What’s clear is that neither of the sisters was afraid to live life “in the moment,” not seeming to care about the future. Therefore, Marie and Hortense came off as spoiled brats sometimes.

The book is well researched, though, and it’s a very detailed portrait of the two sisters whose lives were so much in the public eye. They were among the first media celebrities in the early days of the tabloid press and two of he first women not of royalty to publish the history of their lives. Hortense was written about in connection with her divorce, her relationship with the English King Charles I (note in the title where “Kings” is in the plural), and gambling habit; both sisters bucked convention by traveling for pleasure and leaving their husbands. Their images were captured in art and grace galleries throughout the world.

However, I wish that the author had included more information about the social norms of the time, so that the reader would have at the back of their minds a comparison. But other that that, I thought that this was an insightful look into the lives of two intelligent, fascinating women who overcame obstacles that hindered many other women of their time.

The author, Elizabeth Goldsmith, is a professor of French. She became interested in the sisters’ lives while working on a historical study of French women writers.


Anonymous said…
I do enjoy nonfiction that reads similar to fiction, however, your comment about wishing for the inclusion of social norms is somewhat a red flag for me as it is the aspect that I so often enjoy the most. Thank you for the lovely review.

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