The Bastard Prince of Versailles
by Will Bashor
Genre: Historical Fiction / LGBTQ
Print Length: 338 pages
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
In this racy coming-of-age story, a child of France’s Sun King meets a secret society of gay men.
The Bastard Prince of Versailles is a lushly detailed historical novel that reconstructs the French court of the Sun King and brings it to sensual life. It’s a sympathetic, fictional character study of one of the king’s sons during his early years in which he discovers his attraction to other boys. Bashor embroiders the story in a confident voice that invites in readers who aren’t already familiar with the culture.
Count Louis of Vermandois is Louis XIV’s illegitimate son with Louise de Vallière. In reality, this younger Louis was indeed a member of a secret gay society, and his father did have him flogged and exiled from court, as Bashor confirms for us in an author’s note. Bashor imagines the boy beginning at age seven in 1674 and continuing to his punishment at age 15.
When we first meet the boy, he’s still wearing the feminine clothing that all small children wear, but he’s about to be “breeched”—that is, ceremonially given boys’ pants—and he’ll begin to be treated by his rank at court.
He’s taken to France’s up-and-coming royal center of Versailles, where the billiard room is “paneled in marble and decorated with portraits of Diana and her Nymphs.” His mother lives upstairs, overlooking “vibrant gardens,” in a room through which “wafts of brisk air clashed with the acrid scent of dying embers in the fireplace.” Her relationship with the king has ended, and she plans to take the veil in a Carmelite convent, renouncing the world. We also meet the pregnant Elizabeth, traveling in a coach “covered in gold leaf” and “lined with purple velvet” with cushions “perfumed with lavender and rosemary.”
But Louis’s real emotional relationship is with Marcel, a boy his own age. Marcel is designated as Louis’s whipping boy; when Louis misbehaves, it’s Marcel who is spanked. Marcel is the focus of Louis’s sexual awakening. After swimming together, “the watery bond disappeared” and Louis began to wonder how they should lie in the grass together: “How close was too close? How far away was too far?” All the boys at court amuse themselves with innuendo as they come of age.
Through Louis’s character, readers are introduced to all sorts of male effeminacy in the France of this era, and the potential for gay interpretation is emphasized. Louis is taught that he must be bathed and massaged by another man. His dance teacher gives him “the castanets for rhythm to help with stylizing your arm movements and upper torso. We need to focus on your wrists…” He meets the crossdressing François-Timoléon, Abbé de Choisy. Historically, at Versailles, according to the author’s note, a noble boy was often married at thirteen. So, in this novel, pubescent boys are coached to express sexuality, openly with women as well as furtively with men. Men who coerced teenage boys too aggressively could be punished; The Bastard Prince of Versailles has a scene in which two such men are burned at the stake.
The density of cultural references about 17th-century French nobility can help raise readers’ awareness of how gay men and gender-nonconforming people have always found or made places for themselves, whenever and wherever they lived. Some readers may want the bibliography for their research. But I think the majority of readers will primarily enjoy the absorbing scenery and gay pleasures. You can read it just to transport yourself to another era and ponder this interplay of innocence and lust.
The trajectory of Count Louis’s life was determined by his sexuality. It makes sense that The Bastard Prince of Versailles places such heavy focus on what it was like for him to be gay. At times, the novel reads as erotic farce; at other times, as tragedy. As you read this long story, you can layer different tones and moods onto it and feel how your own reading of Louis’s life changes shape.
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