Book review: The Hurlyburly’s Husband by Jean Teulé

The court of the Sun King Louis XIV was no place for the pure of heart… and Jean Teulé’s romp through the extraordinary story of the Marquis de Montespan is certainly not for those who are faint of heart.
The Hurlyburlys Husband by Jean TeuléThe Hurlyburlys Husband by Jean Teulé
The Hurlyburlys Husband by Jean Teulé

If you are not ‘au fait’ with the lurid legend of the real-life 17th century aristocrat who became notorious as ‘the most famous cuckold in French history,’ The Hurlyburly’s Husband will be a revelation as well as an enjoyable treat.

This brilliantly boisterous, charmingly Gallic tragicomedy is a riveting tale of love, sex and power which gives new dignity to one of history’s most ridiculed figures and helps restore him to deserved heroic status.

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The Marquis de Montespan was the man who loved his beautiful, vivacious wife so much that when the predatory Louis took her as his mistress, he dared to challenge the absolute power of the monarch.

The book, superbly translated here by Alison Anderson, spent over 100 weeks on the French bestseller lists and won the Grand Prix Maison de la Presse in 2008 and now English-speaking readers can revel in all its brash bawdiness and heart-rending pathos.

Louis-Henri, the Marquis de Montespan, and his new wife Françoise, are that rare thing – a true love match, with the besotted marquis declaring that ‘an angel has blessed him.’

Françoise, now calling herself the more fashionable name Athénaïs, is distinguishable amongst other aristocratic ladies by her flamboyant hairstyle – an arrangement of blonde curls around a hoop on her head which she calls her ‘hurluberlu’ or hurlyburly.

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But love is not enough to maintain their hedonistic lifestyle and the couple soon face huge debts. Louis-Henri decides to serve in the army to get himself noticed by the king but discovers going to war is just as ruinous as playing cards.

Then Athénaïs is offered the chance to turn around their fortunes by becoming a handsomely paid lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Thérèse at the new royal Palace of Versailles.

Inevitably, Athénaïs catches the eye of the lascivious king and pleads with her husband to take her away, lamenting that ‘Versailles is a dreadful place’ and that the court ‘changes even the best of souls.’

Montespan refuses to countenance that his wife could possibly change and too late discovers that Athénaïs has become the king’s principal mistress.

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All of France is talking about the new woman in the king’s life and Montespan, like all royal cuckolds, is expected to take the money and rewards offered to him in exchange for his wife and quietly exit left.

Instead, the heartbroken marquis has his coach painted black, decorates it with enormous horns and antlers to publicly declare his status as cuckold and takes the unprecedented step of setting out to win back his wife from the king in the most bizarre ways possible…

Wickedly entertaining, witty and yet startlingly authentic, Teulé’s little French masterpiece moves from high drama to comic irony and scatalogical farce in the blink of an eye and the turn of a page.

This no-holds-barred, earthy and at times stomach-churning portrait of the Grand Siècle’s dark and decadent underbelly is certainly not for the strait-laced or the squeamish… this was an age when the king himself went his whole life without taking a bath and the Palace of Versailles had only two toilets for 5,000 people.

But, for sturdier souls, this is an enjoyable and ravishing – in every sense of the word – account of French-style excess, undress and redress.

(Gallic Books, paperback, £8.99)