By Leslie Lindsay
Kate Braithwaite’s CHARLATAN is brimming with intrigue, power, mystique. There’s more.
Scandal. Panic. Fortune tellers. Scheming woman. Love affairs. Prisoners in dungeons.
It’s dark, intricate plotting, well-developed characters will pull you in and not let you go even when you’re taken on a bumpy journey in a royal carriage down rutted roads to the execution pyre. You’ll feel the heat, your nose will singe with the scent of burning flesh and hair; you’ll hear the guttural screams and wonder how human nature could be so cruel.
Not being a huge French history connoisseur, I found Kate Braithwaite’s historical depth impressive, her writing highly sensory (there was a time I had to sit the book down it ‘got’ to me so much), and the braiding of two plot lines impeccable.
The story centers around Athenais, King Louis XIV’s glamorous mistress and mother to seven of his children. Athenais has left her older two children and husband to play this part for the king. She lives at Versailles in a well-appointed apartment, but has grown older and more plump. She worries she won’t be able to keep the love of the king.
And she would be right.
Together, with her sister, Gabrielle, they scheme and wheedle ways to keep the King within arm’s length. Their methods are manipulative at best, witchcraft-y at worst.
Meanwhile, police chief La Reynie and his new/young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Inquisitions ensue. Trauma and torture, too.
Join me as I welcome Ms. Braithwaite to the blog.
Leslie Lindsay: Kate, it’s a pleasure to have you. I understand you were born in Scotland, but spent a good part of your life in the UK and Canada. So, not being French yourself, what propelled you to write about King Louis’s 17th century France?
Kate Braithwaite: I think Scottish people have quite an affinity for France. I lived in Edinburgh until I was eighteen and grew up on stories of Mary Queen of Scots French mother and Scotland’s ‘auld alliance’ with France. But my interest in Louis and the 17th century in particular happened quite by chance when I came across a second hand copy of Nancy Mitford’s book THE SUN KING. I was on maternity leave after having my first baby and wanted some non-fiction to read. In THE SUN KING, I read about the Affair of the Poisons for the first time and was amazed that there had been such a scandal and yet I had never heard a thing about it. There was enough detail in Mitford’s book to really pique my interest but definitely not enough to satisfy my curiosity. That’s where the road to this novel really began.
L.L.: Can you set the scene for a moment? Can you take us to the world of CHARLATAN?
Kate Braithwaite: CHARLATAN is really set in two very contrasting worlds. First there is the world of Louis, Athenais and Versailles, a beautiful baroque world conjured up by Louis’ design on the site of his father’s old hunting lodge. The court is governed by strict rules and courtiers compete with each other to gain Louis’ favor using all and any weapons at their disposal. For my main character, Athenais, Louis’ discarded mistress, this might have meant turning to the underworld of fortune-tellers operating in Paris who offered horoscopes, love potions and even poison to their disgruntled clients. But this is also a story of a police investigation. Police chief La Reynie and his assistant Bezons have arrested hundreds of fortune-tellers and priests who have built up lucrative businesses in Paris, selling all manner of charms, love potions and ‘inheritance powders’ particularly to women at court who have tired of their aristrocratic mates. La Reynie and Bezons’ world is one of prisons and interrogations, of accusations of witchcraft, Satanism and state-sanctioned torture. When those arrested name Athenais as one of their clients, these two worlds collide. [shown at left: Athenias, via Wikipedia, 1.16.17]
L.L.: The story of the CHARLATAN is purely fictional, but you crafted a historical sequence of what might have happened. Your depth of historical research is remarkable. Can you tell us a bit about your research?
Kate Braithwaite: Thank you! I have read as many books as I could get my hands on about Louis, his mistresses, life in 17th century France and particularly the events of the Affair of the Poisons which are central to the plot of my novel. Writing a historical novel requires finding about all kinds of things… from buildings to clothes and hairstyles, to food, hygiene and transport. For CHARLATAN, I needed to also research historical events. Although I have streamlined and simplified the events of the Affair of the Poisons, this is a fiction that could be true and sticks fairly well to times, places and events that actually happened. All the characters in CHARLATAN existed in real life and although their personalities are imagined, they are imagined based on the known facts about them. I read, for example, that Athenais visited Louise de la Valliere in her convent and had cooked while she was there. That snippet was very important for me in developing her character and the fictional meetings in the book between these two women. Often historical novelists talk about primary and secondary research sources. I was very fortunate that it possible to access an amazing primary source for my novel online. The Archives of the Bastille with transcripts of interrogations that took place in 1680 are only a click or two away. Of course they are in French… that slowed me down a bit! [shown at right: Louise de la Valliere via Wikipedia, 1.16.17]
L.L.: So much of your writing is highly sensory. And that’s a good thing; your descriptions of some of the torture devices were so visceral. In fact, they made me a little squeamish. Yet…I loved them. Can you talk about that please? The torture devices, the research you must have done to get it ‘just right.’
Kate Braithwaite: One of the things that I’ve been surprised about since the book came out is how strong a reaction some of the scenes have provoked in readers. Perhaps because I have written and re-written so much they don’t have the same impact for me. When working on the torture aspects, I referred to a couple of history books that specifically outline torture methods and sadly, of course, torture is still in use today, perhaps more than we know or like to imagine. The internet is full of weird and wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) information. I remember for one scene of water torture that I read on the internet that a cloth was stuffed in the person’s mouth and I could see how effective that would be. It’s part of the writer’s job to pay attention to detail. Often it is the tiny detail that makes the whole seem real. When I’m writing I also consciously try to think in a multi-sensory way and ask myself what the characters are seeing, smelling, hearing and touching, as well as what they are feeling emotionally, what they do and what they say.
L.L.: Honestly, I had never heard of a ‘black mass,’ before. Is this a true and real thing, or did you develop it as a story measure?
Kate Braithwaite: A black mass was very much a real thing according to my research. It is an extension of witchcraft: a satanic practice where the trappings and ceremony of a Roman Catholic mass are subverted and the devil or Satan is called upon instead of God. The black mass described in CHARLTAN is very much what was described by the prisoners in Chateau Vincennes when they were interrogated by La Reynie and Bezons.
L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from this story? I, for one learned about a time in history I was less familiar with.
Kate Braithwaite: That was certainly one main aim. For me it is a fascinating episode that I knew I would love to read a novel about it if one existed. And so now one does! I also hope that readers will take away a feeling of having engaged with the characters. Although Athenais’ behavior is suspect at many points my starting point in writing about her, was very sympathetic. She was the most beautiful, clever and witty woman at Louis’ court but her only way to advance herself and her family was by becoming the King’s mistress. And after having seven children with Louis she was expected to smile and nod as she was replaced. So I hope the story is interesting from the perspective of women in history. But most of all I hope it is a good page turner. I have been an avid reader all my life and enjoy nothing more than being swept away by a good story.
L.L.: Since we’re in January, do you have any New Year’s Resolutions? They don’t have to be literary.
Kate Braithwaite: I have the usual plethora of resolutions about food and exercise, most of which I have struggled with already! I’m trying to keep a proper writer’s notebook this year by which I mean only having one active notebook instead of five and actually keeping that one in my bag or in my car at all times. I feel like I have writing ideas all the time but I don’t capture them, far less act upon them.
L.L.: Do you have other historical narratives in the works? Can you share?
Kate Braithwaite: I am writing another historical novel based on real events and set in the same time period as CHARLATAN, but in London. In 1679, a young man called Titus Oates shocked Parliament with dramatic revelations of a plot to murder Charles II and make Protestant England a Catholic country again. My story focuses on a writer, Nathaniel, and his new young wife, Anne. When Nathaniel becomes determined to prove that Oates plot is a hoax he puts himself and his friends and family’s safety at risk. Proving who really killed a prominent magistrate might be the key to bringing down Titus Oates but Nathaniel has to learn to ask for help from others if he his to succeed: and that includes not underestimating Anne.
L.L.: What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Kate Braithwaite: Nothing springs to mind. I might just add that anyone wanting to know more about the Affair of the Poisons – including all the people and accusations that I simply could not fit in and still make a cohesive (hopefully) novel – should take a look at Anne Somerset’s non-fiction book, THE AFFAIR OF THE POISONS. It’s a great read.
L.L.: Kate, it was wonderful having you. Thank you for transporting us to 1676 Paris.
Kate Braithwaite: Thank you Leslie, and thanks for reading!
To connect with Ms. Braithwaite, via social media, or to purchase a copy of CHARLATAN, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school.
Her novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015.
Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
You can reach out to me, Leslie Lindsay, via these links:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Images throughout post retrieved from Wikipedia on 1.16.17]