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Madame de Maintenon, By Veronica Buckley

The true story of a beggar who rose through society and married a king

It's difficult to like Madame de Maintenon. She was the woman who made the Sun King, Louis XIV, feel guilty about his promiscuous sex life. Her avowed intention was to return him to the holy sanctity of marriage with his boring queen. Instead, she became his mistress and, after the queen conveniently died, his morganatic wife.

Admittedly, she had a terrible start. Born in jail in 1635, where her father Constant was imprisoned for having plotted against Cardinal Richelieu, the young Françoise experienced the humiliation of being a poor relation in the minor nobility. After Constant deserted his family. Françoise and her brother were forced to beg on the streets of La Rochelle.

She was rescued by a Huguenot aunt and uncle, but snatched from them and sent to a convent to be educated as a Catholic. Her beauty and intelligence began to attract worldly suitors, among them the poet, scholar and wit Paul Scarron, about 30 years her senior. Scarron left only debts, but the Widow Scarron survived on charity, having built up a circle of friends in Paris society that included finance minister Fouquet. She cultivated piety "for love of my own reputation": a useful smokescreen for her sexual education. The famous courtesan Ninon arranged the deflowering of the 25-year-old virgin widow with one of her clients.

The King's maitresse en titre, glamorous Athénais de Montespan, appointed the Widow Scarron governess to her illegitimate children. As Louis became interested in them, he was drawn to the governess too, whose intelligent conversation provided a haven from the histrionics of Athénais.

At this point, Veronica Buckley's biography treads ground already well-covered. Françoise ousted Athénais and, with the help of clerical dévots, ensured the King didn't cast his eyes elsewhere. The Sun King's final days always make sad reading. Buckley writes of his painful demise from gangrene, brought on as a result of the ineptness of his doctor Fagon, appointed on the recommendation of Françoise.

The widow fled Versailles before the king's death to avoid the spite of the court. At 83, shortly before her death, she burnt all her letters, saying, "We should leave as little of ourselves behind us as we can." Other observers at court didn't burn their vituperative diaries and letters. So we lack a case for her defence. Buckley has done her best, but you sense in the end she loses sympathy for her opaque subject.