Friday, October 28, 2016

Poison and Plot

Get them in a corner with a glass of something alcoholic, and most historians will admit that one of the appeals of the field is its potential for really juicy gossip. Historians can read diaries, private letters, court cases, and more—all in the name of research. And despite dull lists of crop prices and taxes paid, today’s scandals often pale in comparison to the active imaginations of the past, with their invocations of witchcraft and sorcery, pretenders and princes, and bizarre and horrible punishments masquerading as the rule of law. We still have poisons and pimping, unhappy marriages and love affairs, of course. But these modern-day discontents cannot hold a proverbial candle to something like the Affair of the Poisons, which convulsed the supposedly enlightened nation of France from 1677 to 1682 (by some accounts it began as early as 1675) and pulled in suspects from the sewers of Paris to the court at Versailles.

This scandal forms the backdrop to Kate Braithwaite’s Charlatan, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. From the distorted mass that opens the novel to the aging beauty whose predicament forms its heart, this gritty, touching, and compelling story will drag you into a France now only dimly remembered. And you can get there without even plowing through the police records and the lists of bread prices. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Just head straight for the gossip. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Paris, 1676. At the house of the fortuneteller Catherine Montvoisin (La Voisin), while two hooded forms watch, a wayward priest burns a piece of parchment in a spell designed to awaken the passions of Louis XIV of France. Three years later, those performing the ceremony become the target of a police investigation into the so-called Affair of the Poisons. Through interrogation, strategic imprisonment, and selective executions, the police gradually close in on La Voisin. But because of confessions exacted through torture, the widening scandal sweeps up more than four hundred suspects, including some of France’s most prestigious aristocrats. When a zealous young officer goes after La Voisin’s daughter and threatens to implicate Louis XIV’s official mistress, the marquise de Montespan, the police chief gets cold feet. But the young officer remains determined to bring those he considers guilty to justice, until in the end only the intervention of the Sun King himself can sort things out.

In Charlatan (Fireship Press, 2016), Kate Braithwaite vividly brings to life the extremes of seventeenth-century French society, from the stews of Paris to the luxurious apartments of Versailles and the Carmelite convent where one of Louis’s discarded lovers has chosen to end her days. Sometimes beautiful, often brutal, her portrayal of the Sun King and his world will haunt you long after you finish reading.

Image of Athénaïs de Montespan in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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