Our Lady of the Potatoes
by Duncan Sprott
Descended from an Irish grandfather who braved the Atlantic to begin anew in France, Marie-Louise Murphy is raised in a household steeped in Irish traditions. Newborn babies are spat on for good luck, while wearing pearls will surely bring bad. Although her mother covers her daughters in mud and rags to hide their beauty, Marie is found out and is soon posing as a model for Francois Boucher. One thing leads to another, and her portrait attracts the attention of the King himself; at the tender age of fifteen Marie becomes one of Louis XV’s many mistresses. However, no courtesan can hold the King’s attention if she upsets Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s former mistress and greatest friend. After a few short years, Marie is married off and removed from Versailles. She ultimately outlives the King and the monarchy, survives the Revolution and three marriages, reaching a ripe old age of seventy-seven.
There are some very cute scenes in this novel, like when Marie teaches Louis XV her Irish superstitions like spitting in his right shoe before wearing it to bring good luck. Indeed, I thought Sprott did a great job of capturing Louis XV’s loneliness and frustration at the isolation that comes with being a King of France. Louis is constantly at the center of attention, unable to even dress himself or eat breakfast without scores of onlookers. He needs his mistresses more for the private, quiet moments he can spend with them than for the sexual release. Unfortunately, Louis XV is not the main character in this book, and doesn’t even appear in all that much of it.
The story is told in a very dry, clinical style: A happened, and then B happened, then C, etc. Although the characters should have been interesting – I do love me some good court intrigue – but even at their most passionate they fall flat. The dialogue is rather static, sounding accurate to the time and place without capturing the emotions of the speaker. The rich Rococo architecture and furniture are described evocatively, but the distant stance of the narrator would suit a straight biography better than this fictional account of Marie-Louise Murphy.
This is an older book that I don't believe was officially published here in the US, but I wouldn't be surprised if you could turn up a copy at your local used bookstore. At the bottom of this review I've included the portrait of Marie-Louise Murphy painted by Boucher: