Book Review

The Courtier’s Secret by Donna Russo Morin


Title: The Courtier's Secret
Author: Donna Russo Morin
Publication Info: Kensington Publishing 2009
ISBN: 0758226918
Genre: Historical: European

Book CoverMy understanding of historical fiction is that the audience of readers expects just about every morsel, aside from the fictional existence of the protagonists, to be verifiable or at least highly researched and therefore likely fact. Donna Russo Morin’s book is nothing if not indefatigably researched. Readers experience the entirety of Kind Louis XIV’s court, from the tightly intricate manners and expectations of deportment, which ranged from who had a chair with arms and who could sit in the presence of whom, to the behavior of the courtiers, which, if you’re at all sensitive-

Well, let me start there: if you have a sensitive connection to your sense of smell, and if the description of an odor is enough to make you smell it, this is not the book for you. Donna Russo Morin’s historical research includes every sense, from the sights of the fountains of Versailles, the sounds of courtiers running to meet the King, the feel of the fabric of the women’s dresses, the taste of the rich and opulent foods… and the smells.

Historical accuracy in this novel is largely based on how people smelled. The reader cannot escape that people’s behavior and actual selves were malodorous. In this book, you experience the true luxury of the King’s court, and the depravity. Courtiers take a royal shit in the hallways because there weren’t enough latrines in the palace, or vomit from excesses of wine, leaving servants assigned to the task to clean the hallways within minutes.

In this novel, scents are part of the reality, and the costume.

Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois has recently returned to the court after being tossed out from a convent, unable to curb her rebellious and curious nature. Her father, a status-obsessed abusive nobleman, regularly beats Jeanne’s mother, who is among the innermost circle of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Jeanne’s uncle teachers her fencing in secret, and Jeanne sneaks into all manner of places to learn as much as she can beyond the subjects taught to women at the time.

Jeanne’s behavior is a torment to her father and he arranges to have her married off to a man she dislikes on site, described in the author’s cover copy describes him as “a weak, ineffectual, effeminate man of her father’s choosing,” and while he definitely gives Jeanne the creeps, he doesn’t seem so much the root of evil so much as a continuation of the confined, limited female role she finds so abhorrent.

When Jeanne and her uncle come to the aid of some Musketeers and saves one’s life, because she is wearing her fencing mask and does not remove it, she is mistaken for a man. With her uncle’s help, she disguises herself as a man – not difficult since she resembles her brother and since long hair was the fashion for men at the time – and joins with a young group of Musketeers who are on the trail of a plot to kill the Queen.

Jeanne begins living a double life as a woman caught in the machinations of the court and as a man attempting to fight against a plot to kill the Queen. She falls in love with one of the Musketeers, and has to fight her attraction to him, because she is in effect promised to another.

The plot on the surface sounded terribly fascinating: cross dressing swordswomen who masquerade as musketeers? Sign me up! But as I continued to read, I was distracted by the continual use of smell as a historical detail. As Jeanne dresses in her costume as a man:

felt the sweat dripping down her arms and her gauze-wrapped breasts; she inhaled the fetid odor of her own secretions. What kind of man would I be if I did not smell a little? Jeanne almost giggled again, amused at the question she posed to herself.

Jeanne is forever noticing the musk of her own sweaty self. She finds herself with friends celebrating one man’s fencing victory:

“squished in the tiny circle between three large men, including a severely sweaty and pungent Gerard….”


Smells are not the only element to the historical portrayal. Jeanne is also frequently found swallowing pools of saliva that collect in her mouth, and her examinations of other characters focus on their costume and the degree of falseness that coats every human in the court, from wigs to heeled shoes to mannerisms that are meant to deceive. I can appreciate the author’s intent to contrast the inescapable humanity with the ridiculous posturing of the court at Versailles, but to be honest, after awhile I began to dread what Jeanne would smell next.

I empathized with her position, even though from the start she was foot-stompingly anachronistic, with her inability to sympathize or even commiserate with the other women who were her friends, and her obtuse and stubborn reactions to the court routine and code of conduct. She wanted to be free… but didn’t really define what that meant. While she knows that her masquerade as a man cannot continue, she finds herself a key element to the defense of the Queen, and she also finds her participation to be a heady mixture of action, authority, and autonomy – all the things she covets, wrapped up in one (probably smelly) mustache.

Henri pays lip service to hinting of a more liberated role for women when he remarks that women ought to be listened to, but he says so little that Jeanne’s reaction is so overblown and dramatic that it seems staged for a greeting card advertisement.

Henri says of women:

“It is the lunacy of men not to take advantage of such a valuable commodity…. to ignore such a vast resource of ideas and inventiveness seems…a waste.”

Jeanne could no longer chew or swallow the pieces of carrot in the mouth, so shocked, so delighted, was she by his words. She stared up at him, her smile reverent….

Antoine, Olympe, and Laurent nodded their heads almost in unison, recognizing as well the blossom of love as it took firm root.

Cue the swell of music! Aaaand cut!

The action is nonstop: the plot follows Jeanne from fencing to court to disguises back to court, and the intrigue develops quickly. But because of the focus on the humanity contained in stinky people, I dreaded reading Jeanne’s point of view. God forbid there be a sex scene, I noted at one point, because her description of ball stank will knock me right off the couch. The finale of the book wraps up in record time, and I was left with more questions than answers.

Those who seek incredibly deep and sweaty descriptions of human life in a rich, opulent and turbulent time period will very much enjoy the book, but they will likely embrace the setting and the revealed details, which number in the thousands, than the plot itself. Those looking for cross dressing swordswomen disguised as musketeers will have to look past the stubborn anachronistic heroine and the hero who is more of a foil for her desire for autonomy than a fully developed hero. The difference in the development of the history contrasted with the many stock elements of the protagonists left me disappointed and often dreading what smell would come next.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I find this kind of obsession with how much everything must have stunk to be distractingly inaccurate. If that’s the way it is, you’re unlikely to notice it. A couple of examples: I go to Burning Man. When I first arrive, the people who’ve been there for weeks building the city STINK. 24 hours later, I’ve stopped noticing. My nose has gone dead to that scent. It’s like people who have litter boxes in their homes. They don’t notice the smell, but many of their non-cat owning friends DO. Live near a paper mill? You get used to that too (and it’s hideous). Tannery? Gross, but you get used to it.

    So while the stench of a courtier having just taken a dump in the hall might be something that would catch your attention, the general odors of the day wouldn’t. Harping on them over and over just screams NOTICE I DID SOME RESEARCH just as much as a big, fat info dump does (something that also stink, LOL!).

  2. 2
    MB says:

    I can attest to this.  As a teen I gathered eggs for an after-school job.  Chicken houses and chickens STINK!  But after the first 15 minutes, you don’t notice the smell any more.  When you DO notice it is when you LEAVE that environment.  After I walked out the door, it was always kind of a dizzy feeling…  “Yikes, I STINK!”

  3. 3
    Victoria Dahl says:

    Oh, God. Not the ball stank. It is my mortal enemy! Thank God she did not go toward the pungent flavor of unwashed sac.

    I’m still haunted by a scene in… Was it The Serpent Prince?… when the heroine went down on the hero after he’d spent a day working in the fields. He had, literally, just been ruminating on how foul he was.  Blaaaarrrgh. *koff*

    Loved the book otherwise, but I cried for several days.

  4. 4
    AgTigress says:

    Kalen is SO RIGHT.  How many of us who live in busy cities are constantly aware of the stench of car exhaust fumes?  I bet someone dropping in from an earlier century would be instantly felled by it.  It is not a nice smell.

    Our brains continually edit and interpret all the messages transmitted by our senses, and anything that is ever-present gets relegated to a background level that we simply cease to notice.

    Constantly harping on about smells simply emphasises that the writer has just not entered into the historical setting, but is observing it as a modern outsider – and she then sentences the reader to be an outsider, too.

  5. 5
    Erin says:

    I completely agree with the grading of this book – the smell thing didn’t bother me as much, but I had to laugh when I read the review, such a good call.  It was a quick, enjoyable airplane read, but I’m not likely to recommend it to someone or ever revisit myself.

  6. 6
    Randi says:

    Victoria Dahl: You rock. A sentence using “ball stank” and “unwashed sac” = so much awesome I nearly cried at my desk.

    sent78: once again, the randomizer knows what the H we are talkin about…creepy.

  7. 7
    theo says:

    And herein lies the rub between those who don’t need tons of descriptions and those who want each little minutiae dealt with. As a reader, I bring a certain knowledge to a book concerning the era it concerns. As a writer, I research to the best of my ability in order to provide a richer environment. Just because I’ve researched it though, doesn’t mean I include it. It might help me write a better setting, but I don’t think it all has to be smelled out (pun intended). Either way though, I trust myself, and my readers, to ‘fill in the blanks’. It’s called imagination.

    For those who need each and every tiny detail, this book will probably appeal to them. Me? No, thanks. I’m not interested in reading every different smell emitted during specific time periods.

    I rodeo’d for a long time. There’s ain’t much smells worse than a bronc rider after he’s been sweatin’ bullets awaitin’ his turn on that horse or bull…along with all the other inherent smells involved. ;)

    (Well, there is, but I won’t go there :P )

  8. 8
    Charlene says:

    Thanks for the heads-up. If there’s anything stranger than a historical character being anachronistically clean, it’s a historical character being anachronistically aware of dirtiness.

  9. 9
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I’m not interested in reading every different smell emitted during specific time periods.

    Me either . . . unless it’s Perfume. Man I love that book (films not bad either).

    If there’s anything stranger than a historical character being anachronistically clean, it’s a historical character being anachronistically aware of dirtiness.

    *snicker* I think I love you.

  10. 10
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Whoops, my formatting is off and I missed an apostrophe. What a mess. :::blush:::

  11. 11
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I was just thinking that the review of this book reminded me a lot of Perfume.  Of course, in that one, the obsession with smell was justified by the protagonist’s pathology.

  12. 12
    Grace says:

    What a coincidence!  The inability to chew or swallow carrots has always been my sign of true love.

  13. 13
    Mary G says:

    Just wanted to thank you for your reviews… I don’t always agree with your take, but I do love the way you express your opinion.  Other than the cover snark, this gave me my best laugh of the week.

  14. 14
    KatherineB says:

    I shall remember this always as the Read and Sniff Review. Hilarious! I may just get the book to see how…pervasive the scent gets.

    I often wondered at the dichotomy of the unwashed eras of man’s history. Granted, our sense of smell has declined the further we’ve evolved. I mean, if the Egyptians had a God of Smell, and our primitive forebears needed their nasal capacities to warn them of predators, and if we still use it to smell whether a potential mate is right (clean bill of health), then why should not a person notice odors more in a previous century?

    So my question with the novel is this – if people smelled odors more in previous periods, why the heck didn’t they bathe/clean more? Or did they just appreciate a good personal funky musk?

    If being a modern gal means my brain does what has been mentioned earlier, and edits out smells after a certain amount of time, I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or a curse. I’ve heard that Egyptains would find modern perfumes simplistic and unsubtle. I assume that even after 15 minutes your brain edits out even pleasant scent.

    Okay, I’ve rambled enough. And I decided – bit of a pity. I wish my nose was atavistic in more than size.

  15. 15
    joykenn says:

    The author Roberta Gellis wrote about historical accuracy of smells.  As I remember it she says that given how hard it was to keep clean in the past people probably ignored a certain degree of stink as part of life.  (If you’ve ever wondered why country folk put their outhouse so far away from the house, you’ve never been near a functioning one on a hot summer day!)  They’d only mention the stink if it was particularly foul or worse than the norm.  Barns full of animals SMELL, you expect that when you walk in the door but a badly maintained barn would be noticeable to a person of the time.  Given that, I can’t get get Victoria Dahl’s comment on going down on someone particularly foul out of my mind.  It may put me off of oral sex for a while.

  16. 16
    Victoria Dahl says:

    Given that, I can’t get get Victoria Dahl’s comment on going down on someone particularly foul out of my mind.  It may put me off of oral sex for a while.

    A good, warm dose of Irish Spring will cure you. Mmm. Irish Spring.

  17. 17
    sandra says:

    I think the average person in previous centuries would be so used to things like body odour that they wouldn’t even notice them:  deoderants hadn’t been invented yet, and getting a bath was such a labour-intensive process ( haul buckets of water from tghe well; heat water over fire; haul buckets of hot water to the bathtub; wash; haul buckets of dirty water outside and dump) that even royalty almost never bathed.  Louis XIV just wiped his face and hands with a cloth dipped in alcohol.  There were exceptions; the couryesan Ninon de Lenclos, Louis’ contemporary, was said to owe her unfailing beauty to the use of a special herbal bath mixture.  It worked for her – when she was sixty, a man in his twenties committed suicide because he refused to marry him !  I suspect the big attraction was that she smelled so good.  Spamword is turn41, as in Ninon didn’t worry when she was about to turn 41, since men were still hot for her.

  18. 18
    AgTigress says:

    Just one small addition:  the Graeco-Roman world, and especially the period of the Roman Empire, placed a very high value on personal cleanliness and on good health, and provided for these with numerous well-maintained public baths, and with excellent urban water supplies and effective sewers.
    While it is true that the transport and heating of water can be onerous, there were ideological issues involved, too, at least in the medieval period in the West.  In the early centuries of Christianity, a disregard for the health and cleanliness of the body was regarded by some as meritorious, because it indicated a mind set on higher things, paying no attention to the needs of the earthly body:  it was also a deliberate contrast with the standards and preferences of the pagan Graeco-Roman world, which were being consciously rejected.

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