ISBN 780 957082007 Paperback. Size 198mm x 129mm. Extent 369 pages. Price£7.99 in most bookshops or click on BUY for direct link to Amazon discounted price, plus delivery.
HISTORICAL NOVEL based on the correspondence of Elizabeth Charlotte, Duchess ofOrleans in the reign of Louis XIV of France.
From L’Indiscret (I, i) by Voltaire
“A la cour, mon fils, l’art le plus nécessaire
N’est pas de bien parler, mais de savoir se taire...
Vous ne connaissez pas ce dangereux séjour;
Sur un nouveau venu le courtisan perfide
Avec malignité jette un regard avide,
énètre ses défauts, et, dès le premier jour,
Sans pitié le condamne, et même sans retour.
Craignz de ces messieurs la malice profonde.”
...at court, my son, the most important skill
Is not that of talking well, but knowing how to keep silent...
You do not know this dangerous place.
On a new arrival the perfidious courtier
Mischievously casts a hungry eye,
o spot his weaknesses, and, from the very first day,
Without pity, and without a second thought, condemns him.
Expect the most intense malice from these gentlemen.
Translated L M S
Malice is set in the 17th Century court of Louis XIV in Versailles. Madame, the second wife of the King’s brother, Philippe Duke of Orleans, attracts the jealous hatred of her husband’s favourites. Orleans’ first wife Minette, was thought to have been poisoned by them. How can the second escape the same fate?
Among the several thousand courtiers living in Versailles very many were physically deformed by accidents of birth or disease, but it was so familiar that the fact is rarely mentioned in contemporary accounts, and consequently not common knowledge today. For example, all of the children born of the King and Madame de Montespan were to some extent deformed. Louise de la Valliere had a slight limp, and Minette held one shoulder noticeably higher than the other.The Duc de Luxembourg had not only a hunch on his back but also on his chest, and yet was an admired philanderer. Court tailors were expert at sewing cage-like structures of basket work into a coat designed for a twisted back, a hunch, or any other misfortune caused by accidents of birth, smallpox, or especially the sickness called the anvil because, like a cruel blacksmith, it forged the body into new shapes. The Duc de Saint Simon was tiny and wore very high heels.
Among all these historic characters, Berthon, the hero of MALICE, is an invention. He is one whose physical misfortunes combined all of the above and more. Yet he, the most ugly of them all, who Madame calls her goblin, loves her, and is her most determined protector.
The Duchess, Elizabeth Charlotte, daughter of the Elector of the Palatine, was the second wife of Philippe, brother of Louis XIV and called Madame, being the senior lady at court after the Queen. She wrote a huge number of letters during her life time, hundreds of which survive and form the basis of this book.
The King said to me once, “It would not be appropriate for someone of your condition, Monsieur de Brisse, to have expectations.” So I followed his advice. I lived unobtrusively in the seething magnificence of the court, not like a dog, because dogs were sometimes loved. More like a rat or a spider.
When I was still a child I lived in the country. It was a part of France where the chestnut trees are prolific, and my memory of it is overlaid with their enormous leaves, as if they had fallen in Autumn and buried that life, as they might cover the rotting body of a dog. It is not the sort of memory that one relishes the thought of disturbing, but I must do it.
To someone clean and well fed, destitution and misery, an empty stomach and a body abraded with sores and running with lice is outside the scope of serious, and certainly of fashionable, attention. And so I will not mention these details. I need only say that in a small family of peasants so poor and ignorant that it might seem that no human being could rank below them, I occupied the position of servant.
In addition, at the age of five I had three pigs to look after. If they ate, I ate, and I certainly never hoped to have better food than theirs. When I was cold in Winter I could get some warmth at night from sleeping among them. I remember the smell of their straw, their filth, and their rough warm hides that they would push against each other and against me for greater comfort.
In Winter my foster mother and her children and husband moved their quarters into the cow byre and slept at the far end to keep warm, but they wouldn’t put up with the presence of the pigs, or of myself. They also had a field mattress filled with oats, but I had none.
This woman had been my wet nurse. I had no means of knowing at the time that she had expected me to be taken away after I was weaned, and that it was only their extreme poverty that persuaded her family to keep me. They were paid for it by my father, as I later discovered; a courtier in attendance on the King Louis XIV. What they were paid
came with an exemption from taxes, so that it was worth double the amount it would have been if the collectors for the Tailles and the Aides had taken their share. But even so, every time they set eyes on me they cursed me, and crossed themselves. I understood that the reason for this was that I was exceptionally ugly.
At the age of six, without any explanation or warning, I was handed over at noon one day to the driver of a rough carriage which had been brought a league across country from the road. There was some discussion about whether to put me inside, or tie me to the outside, and because my rags were soaked in urine from the pigs they decided on the latter. My foster father demanded money, but at first he got none. He and my foster mother ran after the horses, and in the end the driver threw down a few coins.
They picked them up without responding to my cries, and my last view of them was with their heads bent together turning over what was in the palm of their hands.
It rained after an hour, and I was cleaned a little by the time we reached Paris. But at that point if I hadn’t been tied down, I would certainly have leapt off the tumbril out of sheer terror at the sight of so many and such massive houses. Having lived in the country and seen nothing but mud hovels, I didn’t even realise that these were houses built by men. I can just still catch, on occasion, the receding memory of how I first perceived them, with their fearful colossal fronts pierced with great orifices that I could not recognise as windows and doors.
The carriage crashed about in this maze of stone until it eventually came to rest and a woman who I had not known was travelling inside, got out and ran off. She returned with two other women and a man. They were all wrapped up in dark shawls and cloaks, but from inside these coverings their clothes made an extraordinary noise that I could not account for. I was not familiar with the loud rustle of silk and it added to my terror.
By this time it was getting dark again. The cords that had tied me to the box were cut and I fell to the ground partly because I was numb with the cold and from being bound so tightly, but also because, my legs being twisted and uneven, I could not get my balance. I cried out, and the driver hit me across the shoulders. I think one of the women was sorry, because she made as if to touch me, but plucked back her fingers
in the air before actually laying them on my rags in a manner that was more expressive of how repulsive I was than if she had had no pity at all. So they all stared down at me in silence until I was able to stand, and then urged me across a paved yard, through a door into a passage way, and from thence to another and another.
At the time I could not understand how, while being indoors, a person could walk so far. And the staircases! For someone who had only once seen a ladder they were conjuring tricks and besides, in my condition I could not climb them at all well. My companions looked on with revulsion as I struggled upwards. No one made any move to touch or help me again, but I was too terrified not to do what they apparently expected.
Eventually I was thrust into a room and the door behind me was shut. I say a room now, but then I could not have identified it as such. It was not the sort of room that I had ever seen or heard of. It was more like another piece of appalling enchantment. Huge as a field, the glitter and colour made me sick, and moreover it was full of people; men and women who I could hardly recognise as being human when I compared them to what I was used to. Their clothes shone with gold and coloured silks, and their heads were decorated as if they were gods or demons.
At the sight of me there was a sudden silence. The nearest women drew back sharply, snatching at their skirts. And then they all, every one of them, either came from far away to look, or, being too close in their opinion, trod on the toes of those behind them in an effort to get away. I was left standing alone in the midst of them.
I was small, even for my age, and dressed in filthy rags that must have smelt and certainly were alive with vermin. I had a hunch back – and of course I still have – as well as a hare lip and legs which had grown, and continued to grow, unevenly. In a word, I was hideous. Even later, when I became familiar with the court and realised that there were many malformed in one way or another, I never came across anyone as ugly as myself. The second Dauphin was a hunch back. The Duc de Luxembourg had two. Almost all the King’s children by Madame de Montespan were marked with some deformity or other from birth or small pox or that other disease that we called the anvil because of the way it refashions the shape of any person unlucky enough to survive it. But I was unique in combining so many deformities in one stunted, disfigured body.
As I stood there, twisted, filthy and alone, there was a sudden ripple
of sound followed by renewed silence and the attention of all those around me was abruptly transferred to a man who entered the room from the far side. He said something and the people between myself and him drew back deliberately to expose me to his view. My gorge rose in terror and the next moment I think I would have thrown myself on the ground if something about the manner of this man had not stopped me.
I watched him – Louis XIV, the King of France – walk into the centre of the room until he could see me well. He was tall and handsome, and the majesty of his presence was remarkable. He came within a few paces until at last I found myself looking up at that magnificent being for the first time.
His face was composed in an expression of benevolence which did not leave it even when he saw me at close range. I was fully aware of how filthy I was, and how the wet from my nose and my eyes had blurred my vision and dripped into my mouth through my hare lip, and yet His Majesty looked neither angry nor contemptuous at the sight of me. This may seem a small matter to a normal person, but I assure you if it is the first time in your life that you have not aroused fear or indignation in a stranger merely by existing, you do not forget it.
Then he turned away; but in that moment he had given me courage. I stifled my sobs. I tried to wipe the slime off my mouth and chin with the palm of my hand, but cautiously, and listening meanwhile to try to catch the drift of what was being said.
The discussion that was going on was almost incomprehensible to me because the words and accent I was accustomed to bore almost no resemblance to the language used at court. But I now know that the lady who had me fetched from the country was a discarded mistress of my father, the Chevalier de Brisse, and her motive was to embarrass him; to be revenged on him by making him a laughing stock for having rejected her, only to father a monstrosity such as me with his legitimate wife, who had then died. That he had subsequently attempted to hide me away in the country, disowning his duty as a father and lying to his friends, was considered shocking.
Throughout the explanation that went on over my head I stood there silently looking up at the King. I found that if I looked at him I was less afraid.
Eventually he turned back to me. I paid eager attention, but this time I could not catch his eye. He looked at my rags and said that I must be made clean, and dressed in a way suitable to my rank as the son of a nobleman. He said that from then on I should live at court, as it was my right, by birth, to do. He later provided a small pension for my maintenance, as he did for those who came to court but had limited means. My father, it transpired, was not rich.
I never saw my foster family again, or my three pigs, or the kitten I was keeping near the well cover. Years later when I had to travel through that country I went leagues out of my way to avoid going near the particular piece of land.
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The author, L M Shakespeare, originally married Brian Shakespeare while still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, where she studied English Literature. She felt obliged to use only her initials when her first books – three financial thrillers – were published because at the time it was considered so unlikely that a woman could write a good thriller that a female name would have been a disadvantage. They were published by Macdonald in the UK, Futura in paperback, St Martins Press In America, in Germany and in Japan. The thrillers, Lodestar, The Gentlemen’s Mafia, and Death Valley are now published in new paperback editions by Hopcyn Press. She is working on a sequel to MALICE.