Kate Braithwaite Interviews Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan from Charlatan
1676 In a hovel in the centre of Paris the fortune-teller La Voisin prepares a black mass…
CHARLATAN by Kate Braithwaite is a historical thriller based on the true events of the Affair of the Poisons that shocked the court of Louis XIV in the seventeen century. At the centre of explosive allegations about the use of aphrodisiacs, poisoning and infanticide was Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s long-standing mistress. In her late thirties, Athénaïs found herself being supplanted by an eighteen year-old beauty. At the same time, her past involvement with the Parisian underworld was about to catch up with her.
KB: Tell us when and where you were born?
MdeM: I was born in Lussac in south-west France in 1640. I’m the third child of the Duc and Duchesse de Mortemart, one of France’s most noble families. My older brother and sister live at Louis’ court at Versailles, as do I. My younger sister became a nun – a fate I hope not to share.
KB: What influence did your birth family have on you, your choices, your life? Explain why and how.
MdeM: No one should underestimate the influence of family. My mother, Diane, was a beautiful, clever and pious woman but she was cold. Perhaps my father made her so. He was never faithful and at points I have hated him for it. Now that I am older, however, I understand him more. But understanding or not, my parents were too engaged in their own battles to help me when I needed them. Oh, they taught me my worth. It was drummed into us all that our family was as good, if not greater, than the King’s Bourbon line. But where was the great marriage match they promised me? I was twenty-two before they finally arranged for me to wed that fool the Marquis de Noirmoutiers. What were they thinking? When that came to nothing I insisted upon marrying Montespan. I have my father’s temper. What can I say?
KB: How did you feel when you first saw the love of your life?
MdeM: He is the King. What do you imagine I felt?
KB: But how did you fall in love with him? At first sight? Over a long period of time?
MdeM: We all adored the King. It is impossible not to. But love? Love came slowly and with knowing him. His smile, his laughter: they are irresistible. He delights in wit and beauty. I fell in love with him over building plans and drawings, over our garden designs for Versailles and the floor-plans for my house at Clagny. I fell in love – we fell in love – as we planned how to move water uphill to supply the fountains in the Basin de Apollo, as we listened to the strains of Racine’s compositions and applauded Moliere for every sparkling new drama. We fell in love and lust in the glittering, steaming Appartment de Bains. Everything was glorious: Louis, Versailles, our love and our children. At least while it lasted.
KB: What are your greatest strengths?
MdeM: My love of life. I love my children. I love animals. I love nature and beauty, words and wit. Cast down as you find me now, I am proud of my gardens, of my entertainments, of my beautiful homes and my support for the art and artists that make France the envy of the world. A woman is limited in what she can achieve in many ways. Her role is to marry well and to support, but rarely to lead. I have made what I can of my life. I have loved well and given the best of myself to my King and my children. I am proud of that.
KB: And your weaknesses?
MdeM: My temper. It displeases the King, I know it. He dislikes my scenes, as he calls them. And I married in temper – look what that brought me. My husband was a gambler and perhaps even a madman. He threatened to contract syphilis from a whore in order to infect me and, through me, the King. He was fortunate not to be imprisoned for those words alone. When Louis banished him to his lands in Gascony he held a mock funeral for me, did you know that? They said he placed a cuckold’s horns on his head and drove our children in a carriage draped in black.
KB: What do you want from life now?
MdeM: You mean now that my lover has turned from me? You can ask me directly. I know what is being said. The King has eyes for no one but Angelique de Fontanges. An eighteen-year old ingénue to my thirty-eight years and nine children? Is that a fair fight? A fight I can win? My sister Gabrielle insists I must, but I am uncertain. I would wish to be not always fighting to protect our family’s interests. I wish for a lover who is faithful and with whom I can grow old securely. But for a woman like me that’s no more than a girlish dream. I want position. I want my children legitimized and my status secured. It’s not romantic, but it is practical. Gabrielle may still think that potions and fortune-tellers will help me keep the love of the King but she is not the one who feels the loss of intimacy every time his eyes graze my face and refuse to meet with mine. She has no idea that feels.
KB: I’m interested that you mention love potions. Are you familiar with the rumours at Court about the arrests among the Paris fortune-tellers? Do you have anything to fear?
MdeM: Of course I have heard of it. Versailles is awash with bored nobles with nothing better to do than trade in gossip and insult. But do I have anything to fear? Certainly not.
KB: One last question. Any regrets?
MdeM: None. Regrets are for fools. Although perhaps if I had my time over I would not engage my old friend François as the governess of my children. She is far too friendly with the King these days and insists on consulting him about their education without any reference to me. He has gifted her the Château de Maintenon and a title. Now there is no end to her self-congratulation. She overreaches herself, that one. Who knows what ambition lurks in her true heart?
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school. Her debut novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
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