Would you sacrifice your childhood and your entire life for your family? Would you live in the shadow of others because you are not worthy of a title, respect or dignity? Living in the 17th century and working alongside her parents, hoping to earn enough money to eat, 14 year old Claudette des Oeillets endures the life of a juggler, bit player, tumbler, seamstress and assistant to a powerful woman. Her family lives from hand to mouth and hopes to get parts in different plays in order to earn money for food and lodging. But, the author’s first 33 chapters invite the reader inside the theater, the prejudices the actors face, the hard times that evolve, the theater wars to fight for those starring in the plays, and even the competition among playwrights. The Shadow Queen focuses around a young girl named Athenais but in reality it is about much more as we get to know the story of Claudette, the loss of her father at the hand of muggers and the devotion she displays to both her mother and handicapped brother, Gaston.
Teaching readers about the theater, the events that played important roles in history, the famous playwrights leading up to Claudette trying to elicit roles for her talented mother whose life seemed to be on the downslide when Nicholas her husband died. Joining different troupes, working for famous writers and playwrights we learn all about the changes within the theater, the excitement of the flying machines and the more graphic theater sets and the changes within the type of plays that were sort after. Claudette is bright and befriends Athenais as a young child and a promise she made to her when they were young comes back to haunt her in the present. As they form a strange alliance and Claudette is sought out to spend time with her and become her seamstress, mends costumes, make sets and watch the players while thinking about her own future, her life and reflecting on the happiness and joys of others yet never really considering her own.
Center stage enters King Louis XIII and his cortege who provides much of the backdrop for what happens before Claudette finds a special position for her mother. Deceit, lies, betrayals, indignities and hate come through loud and clear class distinctions are noted, Claudette is considered a whore as she is a player and her image is tarnished even though she is chaste and has never been with a man. But, Athenais, as she calls herself was engaged to a young man who decided to be second for his best friend who challenged someone to a duel. Duels are illegal as Claudette learned when she and her family were tossed out during a performance of Le Cid. But, realities set in and lives were lost and Claudette’s loyalty to her friend and her resourcefulness endear you to her from the start. But, Athenais is heartbroken at the end result as her beloved gets hurt, goes into hiding and must leave or be killed by order of the young king. So, where does this leave Claudette? Smart, and definitely never giving up she manages to tell the head of a troupe about her mother, that he knew her back in the day and her father too and a dialogue begins and a career is launched.
Being placed as Athenais’s assistant and shadowing her everywhere made her equivalent to a different type of Shadow Queen in her own right. Athenais was rude, aggressive, self-absorbed, treacherous and self-centered yet she could not seem to function without Claudette. The many different playwrights such as Racine, Moliere and Corneille play an integral part in many of the scenes in the first 37 chapters as we hear the many interpretations of the different plays, learn about the cutthroat and devious methods each used to win the King’s favor and the rivals that Athenais had to eliminate in order to remain the one woman that the King wanted. Taking this position in court and dealing with the many different moods of this woman did not make life easy for Claudette nor did it when her mother needed her when she became deathly ill. Guilt-ridden because she was not always there her mother’s final days are graphically and beautifully described and depicted by the author allowing readers to understand the true meaning of the illness the Consumption and the lack of medical skills and procedures that were not in place back then.
Begging for roles in plays, hoping to create a role that she could play within her own life, Claudette finds herself living for many years or decades in the shadow of this woman that treated her as more than just a servant but in the end you will be surprised. Sharing their innermost thoughts, even forcing Claudette to appease the King when she could not, their relationship is quite odd and not what one would expect. Athenais de Montespan’s father is a cruel and unfeeling man that originally through Claudette and her family out into the street you might say after they performed a scene from The Cid. But, as the primary mistress of French King, Louis XIV, her role changed to what the author states if the maid or personal assistant to this woman but in reality was much more. Never treated as anything more than a player or considered a harlot or whore, Claudette struggles throughout the entire novel trying to please others, deal with the mores of the court and then when the marquis, Athenais, husband is exiled and she becomes bears many children for the King things heat up and keeping Claudette at her side.
Within the novel we learn of Catherine who creates love potions and charms for Athenais. Eventually Claudette ends up pregnant with one of the King’s children. But, the ending will take you by surprise and the one person in the King’s court that find Claudette special cannot find his way to remain in her heart. “ Men may reduce me to live without happiness, but they cannot compel me to live without honor.” Words Claudette believed in and lived by but to what extent. With a brother who had difficulty staying out of trouble due to his lack of knowledge and inability to understand and comprehend situations, what Claudette does to safe him from prison is remarkable.
Wars between the playwrights, theaters and even the actors comparing each other’s roles, belittling performances and loyalties shifting in many directions, The Shadow Queen brings to light the issues of trust, faith, honor, family relationships, class distinctions, caste system, the mores and rules of the court, lies, betrayals and deceit all to gain power. Athenais, Madame de Montspan, is said to be the primary focus of character of this novel but she is second to Claudette. From being destitute, a traveling player, to entering the world of theater, the court and the final scenes that provide a surprising twist as Claudette is taken into custody, might have charges filed against her and the reasons you might say: Revenge but against whom? Was she part of the Affair of the Poisons used to kill many? Why did so many identify her as seeing her in the presence of Madame Catherine? Was she being set up or framed? A court scandal and in which some say Satanic black masses were supposed to have been worn and many were executed. The history of the period is accounted for in a vividly descriptive manner. The stench and rot found in the prisons and in many of the areas Claudette frequently forces readers to cover their mouths and noses as the descriptions ignite your olfactory senses. Little is spoken of Claudette’s life within the Court except how it involved being Athenais personal assistant. Her life seemed sparse, unfulfilled and she spent most of her time pleasing others and providing comfort for her mother and brother. A final scene that will illuminate readers about Athenais and an ending that will turn things around for both Claudette and Athenais in a direction you won’t expect. The Shadow Queen: Athenais or Claudette: Depends on how you look at it. Some live in the shadow of their own glory and want others to bask within their sunlight and others live within their own world and create a shadow of their likeness but really not seen when with others.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer