Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sandra Gulland. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why did young Petite turn to bone magic to tame Diablo? Did she understand the ramifications of her actions? As an adult, did Petite regret this decision?
2. “The Devil gives nothing away for free” (page 13). In what ways did Petite pay for using the Devil's power? Is the use of “evil” for a “good cause” ever justified?
3. Many “ghosts” appear throughout the novel, usually in dreams, including the Lady in White, Diablo, and Petite’s father, Laurent. Discuss their significance and their effect on Petite. What is it that haunts her?
4. “It felt strange for her mother to be touching her” (page 85). Discuss the relationship between Petite and her mother, Françoise, both as a child and an adult. How does it compare with her feelings for her aunt, Sister Angélique?
5. “Was it possible that nobility of the heart had little to do with high birth?” (page 123). What does Petite mean by “nobility of the heart”? Whom do you find noble? Petite? Her father, Laurent? Louis? Abbé Patin?
6. When Jean takes his sister on a tour of Paris for the first time, they climb to the top of Notre Dame, at which point she notes: “It seemed a monstrous and unnatural thing to see the world from such a height” (page 170). What does Petite mean by this statement? Is it foreshadowing?
7. What does Diablo mean to Petite?
8. Marie-Anne says her father confided in her that her mother was the only woman who ever loved him. Did he return Petite’s love? How did his feelings change over time—and why?
9. When Louis first meets Petite, he’s reminded of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And Louis is referred to as the Sun God Apollo. Are these comparisons accurate? Why does Sandra Gulland invoke Roman and Greek mythology?
10. Early on in their relationship Athénaïs alerts Petite that “A woman of Court . . . will do anything to get . . . [the King’s] friendship” (page 267). Was there evidence of Athénaïs’s true intentions all along? Did her behavior surprise you? Did she ever love either Louis or Petite?
11. Part IV is titled “Mislove.” What does this term mean? Does it accurately reflect Petite’s relationship with the King?
12. Petite is frequently warned that at Court, “nothing is as it seems” (page 298). Discuss this as an overall theme in the novel. Is there anyone who doesn’t wear a mask? Consider the people Petite confides in: Nicole, Clorine, Athénaïs, Abbé Patin, Gautier. Who can Petite trust?
13. One of Petite’s ancestors rode alongside Joan of Ark. Why does the author include this backstory? Do you see any similarities between the two women?
14. Petite confides in Gautier that she doesn’t see her relationship with Louis as a sacrifice (page 321). Does she truly believe this? Ultimately, what, if anything, does Petite sacrifice for Louis’s sake? Does she comply out of love or loyalty to the Crown?
15. God is Petite’s “best friend” (page 323), and yet the Devil is always lurking. Which influences Petite most—her love of God or her fear of the Devil?
16. Knowing the outrage it will cause, why does the King publicly acknowledge Petite’s children as his own? How does the new title “Duchess” affect Petite, if at all?
17. “Diablo was stubborn, but she was stubborn too” (page 513). What other characteristics do Petite and Diablo share? In the end, are they both free?
18. What does Versailles (“Versaie” in the novel) mean to Petite and Louis at first, and what does it become? Do the changes reflect a change in their relationship?
19. How was “magic” used at that time? Why was its use prevalent? In what ways are such things used today—and why?
20. “[It seemed] they were all of them ensnared,” Petite reflects (page 122). What choices did women have in that era? What other choices might Petite have made?
Enhance Your Bookclub
Assign people to research different aspects of France during King Louis XIV’s reign. One person can learn about politics, another can look into costumes, religion, witchcraft, etc. Then share what you discovered with the group.
To see a different perspective of France during this era, watch the 1998 film The Man in the Iron Mask. How does the film portray King Louis and others compared to Mistress of the Sun?
Want to find out more information about Sandra Gulland and her other novels? Visit www.sandragulland.com.
A Conversation with Sandra Gulland:
When did you first learn of Louise de la Vallière? There are so many famous women throughout history, especially those with connections to royalty. Why did you choose to focus on la Duchesse de la Vallière?
I became interested in Louise de la Vallière while doing research on Josephine Bonaparte. Louise captured my interest because of her horsemanship, and the romance of her relationship to the Sun King. She was unsophisticated, a tomboy, from the lower nobility—an unlikely young woman to capture the heart of a powerful and charismatic man like the Sun King (the rock star of kings). How did this come about?
Most of all, I wondered how a young woman at that time would acquire such a high level of skill riding horses. Today she would be considered at an Olympic level of accomplishment.
There were so many unanswered questions. She is described as timid, something of a wallflower; yet how did does gibe with her prowess on horseback? She was a daring horsewoman, a mistress to the Sun King, a Carmelite nun. The combination of these qualities intrigued me.
You go into great detail in this novel—the descriptions of the clothes, jewelry, palaces, food, and parties paint a very vivid picture. How did you research Mistress of the Sun? Was there anything about seventeenth-century France that surprised you?
I love studying the details of daily life more than any other aspect of the research. It's an endlessly fascinating subject.
I use the Internet a great deal, although my main source of information continues to be books—both memoirs and accounts written during the period as well as historical texts. I record notes on computer, which makes it easy to search and find what I need, when I need it.
It was a difficult period for me to come to understand, in large part because of the intensely spiritual—as well as superstitious—outlook that was fairly universal at that time. Even the mathematician Descartes, founder of the empirical method, believed bad dreams were planted in his head by demons. This was a surprise.
Perhaps the hardest part of “time travel” is understanding the ways in which perception was very different from our own—as well as the ways in which it was very much the same.
Have you ever been to France yourself? If so, did you visit any of the locations mentioned in the novel?
I went to France three times while writing this book. I saw the château in which Petite grew up, saw where she was born in Tours, visited the convent (now a school of music) where her aunt Angélique was a nun. In coming to understand her life, I went to Amboise, Blois, Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris (touring the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and Vincennes), Vaux-le-Vicomte, and—of course, several times over—Versailles. On-site research is essential when writing historical fiction—but it is also one of the great pleasures of the work.
Why did you decide to write the epilogue from Louise’s daughter, Marie-Anne’s point of view?
Mistress of the Sun evolved through countless drafts: There have been many endings!
I had initially planned to write an afterword, explaining what happened, and to whom. I felt that the reader would want to know. Marie-Anne was, in fact, present at her mother's death, something I found very moving. I chose her first person point-of-view because it felt right, and because Marie-Anne was in a position to inform us of what happened to her brother, her grandmother, her uncle, her father—so I gave it a try.
I e-mailed Marie-Anne’s account of her mother’s death to my editors, and they loved it. Even so, I wasn't sure if it worked . . . and I didn't really know until I read the novel through from beginning to end (for the hundredth time). Marie-Anne's account made me cry: I knew then that it was the right way to end the novel.
How did you get the idea for Diablo? What does he represent to Petite?
Where do ideas come from? It's such a dreamlike process.
In 1990, while I was first learning about the life of Louise de la Vallière, a friend told me a story about healing a horse nobody dared touch. I knitted this account into a short story about Louise—a passionate fable in which she ultimately kills the horse she loves. In this story—the kernel of what ultimately, many years later, became Mistress of the Sun—the King's horse, a dangerous black stallion named Hannibal, was dying. Petite is able to approach the horse and save it, thus beginning her relationship with the King.
I started writing the novel version of this short story in 1992. I had just finished writing The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first of what was to become the Josephine B. Trilogy, and my agent was looking for a publisher for it. The following year I was offered a contract, so I (rather reluctantly) put the novel about Louise away, planning to return to it once the trilogy was finished.
In 1999, I went to France, to Paris. It was my last research trip for Josephine. On a trip to the Louvre, I wept leaving Jacques-Louis David's magnificent painting, Coronation of Napoleon, knowing that I would soon be leaving Josephine’s world. On the way out of the Louvre, I bought a postcard of a painting of a white horse (Tête de Cheval Blanc) by Théodore Géricault). This was my lifeline to the next book—something to draw me forward, something to help me leave Josephine behind.
This, then, is where Diablo began, with that horse portrait, which I put above my desk. What does he represent to Petite? I think Diablo represents connection with a true and wild animal spirit: her own wild, animal spirit.
Are you generally a fan of historical novels? If so, which are your favorites?
I am a fan of what I would call literary historical novels—slow, gritty but poetic novels that often end unhappily. I love Rose Tremain’s work—my favorite is Music & Silence. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is brilliant. Hans Koning’s A Walk with Love and Death is a spare, elegant historical novel that I’ve read several times over. Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders is a wonder, as is Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. I loved Enemy Women by Paulette Giles. More recently, there is The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, which has to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Imposture by Benjamin Markovits is stunning, as is Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is irresistible. I read these authors with awe.
What was the greatest challenge in writing a novel based on real people and events from the seventeenth century?
Any novel based on fact faces a number of challenges, the greatest being crafting a story, a narrative arc out of random events. One has to find the story in the facts, and then allow that story to flower. Often that means letting go of the facts. It's difficult to be true to both, and ultimately the story is what matters most in fiction.
On another level, I feel that truth can be revealed in this way—an emotional truth that may not be evident in the bare facts.
On a practical level, logistics in the seventeenth century were never simple. Getting from point A to point B could prove to be extremely complex (at least from our perspective). Ideology, perspective: these were challenging to come to grips with. Intimate details of daily life: these are very hard to uncover. And what in fact did happen? There are, invariably, differing accounts. One has to become a sleuth.
Which famous woman throughout history do you find the most remarkable?
I am most interested in women who are plunged into a role for which they were not raised and for which they were ill-prepared. Josephine, daughter of impoverished nobility, becomes Empress. Louise, a devout, rustic, tomboy daughter of minor nobility becomes the Sun King's official mistress. I think I'd likewise be interested in the story of a princess turned pauper.
Joan of Arc truly was remarkable—but there would have to be something about her that provokes my curiosity for me to be drawn to write about her. "Remarkable" is not enough to make a good story—there has to be more, at least for me. I'm very fond of La Grande Mademoiselle, the Sun King's cousin, for example, a bumbling early feminist who completely (and foolishly) lost her head to love. Athénaïs interests me, as well. What made her turn to the Devil?
Petite has such a love of horses. Do you have an affinity for them, or other animals, as well? If not, what is your great passion?
I am what is called “a horse person.” I have an elderly Thoroughbred named Finnegan, a noble gentleman if ever there was one.
One of the reasons history attracts me is that it is a world full of horses. The greatest pleasure in researching Louise’s story was learning about horsemanship in the seventeenth century. Bone magic really was something used to tame horses, and was believed to make men go mad, “Gone to the river.”
You must have discovered so many interesting people in your years of researching Mistress of the Sun. Do you plan to focus on one of these characters in your next novel, or would you like to write something completely different?
There are so many fascinating characters—so many fascinating stories—in this period. I will definitely be writing more about them.