A woman always at the mercy of powerful men

Duncan Sprott’s book Our Lady of the Potatoes is a fictionalised account of the life of one of the mistresses of Louis XV. The book is accurate enough given what we know of the history of the time but the author had filled in detail and created characters for people we know very little about. The result is a brilliant piece of writing which I loved.

Marie-Louise O’Murphy was one of many daughters in a family of Irish immigrants living in France. The family kept their Irish traditions and superstitions and identified as Irish despite the girls being the third generation to live in France. They lived on the edge of society and dabbled in criminality and prostitution. When Marie-Louise was painted by an up and coming artist her portrait came to the attention of the king and she was groomed to take her place in his large collection of mistresses. When the king moved on she was left at the whim of powerful men.

Marie-Louise was groomed by her family for a career in prostitution, bought by the king as a mistress forcing her to live in a precarious position in society, forcibly married in order to give a name to the king’s child and then left at the mercy of a series of husbands. As events moved on in France she found herself identified as an aristo after the revolution and very narrowly missed execution. She had to change how she lived and who she knew to preserve her life. By any standards it was an eventful life and it makes an excellent story.

The author tells us about Marie-Louise’s life as though it is a fairy tale so it always seems just a little unreal. This feeling is enhanced because there is very little direct speech in this book – most of what people say is related to us by the narrator who also tells us what they think and why they say it. I thought that the writing style really worked and I was captivated by this novel – it’s a real gem. I cannot now remember how I came to hear of the story but I am very glad that I managed to get hold of a copy of this book. It was a delight.

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