I have to admit that I always feel slightly nervous about reading historical fiction because, when badly executed, I find it at best risible, at worst irritating! However, by the time I’d read just a few chapters of this story I felt immersed in the world of early eighteenth-century France, as well as fascinated by the cast of characters who would share with me their individual experiences of that world.
The story is set in Blois, in the château of Duc Hugo d’Amboise, a man who lives a courtly life of luxury with his wife, Duchesse Charlotte and his five mistresses. A long-standing one being Henriette d’Augustin, with whom he has a daughter, Solange. Henriette has now become a well-established favourite within the court, even enjoying a close friendship with the duchesse. She is someone who sets great store by her integrity, loyalty and honour and yet she is also troubled by a long-held secret from her past which, if exposed, would lead to her expulsion from the secure and comfortable life she currently enjoys.
The duchesse appears to tolerate, and even accept, the presence of her husband’s mistresses, possibly by convincing herself that, in spite of her not having been able to produce the son he longs for, neither has any of them, meaning that it is she whom he loves above all of them. Consequently, as the story opens, relationships between the women appear to have achieved a reasonably comfortable stability, with each accepting whatever attention the duc bestows on them. However, when he falls deeply in love with the strikingly beautiful eighteen-year-old Letitia, his latest mistress, the duchesse feels her confidence in her position as the dominant female being undermined, allowing all her previously camouflaged insecurities and jealousies to surface. Then, when Letitia quickly becomes pregnant, Charlotte fears this young woman will produce the male heir her husband so desperately wants. Her subsequent despair is such that she is prepared to go to extreme lengths to rid herself of this rival and will not allow any previously held loyalties and friendships to get in the way of her determination to reclaim her husband’s affection and attention. So, it isn’t long before she comes to regard Henriette, who is torn between wanting to retain their close friendship and wanting to be kind and welcoming to Letitia, as her enemy.
The escalating and distressing effects of this disharmony within the household are central to the developing story and form the “vehicle” by which the author develops her characters, explores their histories and exposes their secrets. She conjures up a convincing atmosphere of the intrigues, jealousies, rivalries and passions which drive each of them to fight to retain their position in the duc’s household. Whilst these battles and interactions are described in ways which evoke the social mores of the time, just one of the things I found so compelling about the storytelling was that, although much of the detail is very different in today’s world, some of the issues the women in this story struggled with remain the same, with sexual politics and abuse of power being central! Also, with all the gossiping, rumour-mongering, back-biting and bullying which was rife within the court, I was reminded of the insidiously destructive effects of social media, a modern-day equivalent … some interesting themes for reading groups!
There were no distinct “goodies and baddies” in this story, just flawed, nuanced characters who, in the only ways they knew how, were doing their best to survive. I found each of the characters recognisable and appreciated the fact that, however shocking and unpalatable some of their behaviour was (and some of it was truly dreadful!), the author provided enough information to enable me to understand the fears and anxieties which were motivating it, ensuring that the story’s development was underpinned by an impressive psychological credibility.
Another theme which would make this a good choice as a group read is the lengths to which people will go to sacrifice their beliefs, their moral and ethical standards and their family loyalties in order to protect their secrets, retain their power, their position in society etc. This dilemma is one which faces Henrietta as she struggles to balance wanting to protect the innocent Letitia from the vengeful behaviour of the duchesse, without herself becoming the victim of Charlotte’s wrath, without risking the well-being of her family and without losing the opportunity of future happiness and security.
I enjoyed the contrasts between the descriptions of leisurely picnic lunches in the countryside, carriage rides, dress fittings, visits to Versailles, the fun-filled games of the children of the court (who were so adept at observing the behaviour of the adults!), and all the darker, increasingly diabolical behaviour which added such sinister and disturbing elements to the storyline. I thought that the author managed this tension in an impressive and compelling way, making “just one more page” a compulsive imperative! Without risking spoiling the plot, I think it’s safe to divulge that this story is full of intrigue, with constant twists and turns as loyalties shift. It includes some shocking violence, black-magic, sacrificial rituals and a murder plot, whilst themes of betrayal, corruption and abuse of power provide a constant backdrop. Although there are moments of humour and lightness, as well as some diverting romantic liaisons (particularly those provided by a tarot reader, the charismatic Romain de Villiers, whose own intrigues and secrets soon become apparent), essentially I found this a sad and disturbing story with an ending which, given the era in which it was set, was not totally surprising but was, nevertheless, quite shocking.
It is clear from the highly evocative nature of the descriptions that the author has done considerable research into the period, and yet the elegant simplicity of her writing style demonstrates that whilst she used this to create powerfully vivid images in a very effective way, she didn’t fall into the all too common trap of some authors, that of including so much evidence of that research that the story becomes buried in a welter of facts!
Linda Hepworth 4/4
The Orange Grove by Kate Murdoch
Regal House Publishing 9781947548220 pbk Oct 2019