HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ by Josephine Wilkinson

A vivid, dramatic, and eye-opening historical narrative, The Man in the Iron Mask reveals the story behind the most enduring mystery of Louis XIV’s reign.

The Man in the Iron Mask has all the hallmarks of a thrilling adventure story: a glamorous and all-powerful king, ambitious ministers, a cruel and despotic jailor, dark and sinister dungeons— and a secret prisoner. It is easy for forget that this story, made famous by Alexandre Dumas, is that of a real person, Eustache Dauger, who spent more than thirty years in the prison system of Louis XIV’s France—never to be freed.

This narrative brings to life the true story of this mysterious man and follows his journey through four prisons and across decades of time. It introduces the reader to those with whom he shared his imprisonment, those who had charge of him, and those who decided his tragic fate.

The Man in the Iron Mask reveals one of the most enduring mysteries of Louis XIV’s reign; but it is, above all, a human story. Using contemporary documents, this book shows what life was really like for state prisoners in seventeenth-century France—and offers tantalising insight into why this mysterious man was arrested and why, several years later, his story would become one of France’s most intriguing legends that still sparks debate and controversy today.

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I had been waiting for this book to be released for what felt like a year, and when it came, so did Delta to New Zealand, zapping my ‘essential worker’ energy and enthusiasm for anything. I love a good mystery, conspiracy theory, story moulded by time rather than fact, and yet I struggled to get into this book. My 18yo son saw me trying to read, and started a quick google search on the various character names I read aloud, and the book became a delightful rabbit hole for us both. I ended up reading much of the book aloud as we enjoyed the twists and turns together, given how much these individuals went through, and we ended up talking about them on a first-name basis like they were people we knew. You could definitely make this book in a multiple season show with the twists, turns and strange goings-on in a French prison.

Wilkinson immediately introduces Eustache Dauger (what a name), the so-called Man in the Iron Mask. But there are other people ‘enjoying’ the prison facilities, such as Count Nicolas Foucquet and Comte de Lauzun, who had interesting sentences, such as Lauzan being imprisoned for meddling in his cousin’s affair (the king). While they lived a strange, quasi-high life in prison, Dauger could not speak, see anyone, essentially no longer existed at all.  His was a thirty-year imprisonment starting Pignerol under a man named Saint-Mars, who moved him between Chateau d’Exilles Ile Sainte-Marguerite, and eventually at the Bastille. Dauger seemingly became Saint-Mars life’s work.

Time passed, as these prisoners got up to various behaviours between the prisons they were housed in, and yet Dauger’s true name and identity remained a secret (spoiler, there was no iron mask, just a face cloth, or sheet over him while on the road, in case you didn’t know that).  The theories of who Dauger really was has taken many turns over the centuries, and Wilkinson goes through them, showing the proof (or lack thereof) of each scenario, before giving the most likely and most believable tale of Dauger’ name and crime. I must admit I was a tad sad how it all ended, not from the quality of the book, but from Dauger’s eventual fate. It seems being forgotten to die is the cruellest punishment of all.

Five-stars, a convincing and believable book with a cast of French characters worthy of such a timeless tale. Bonus points for the fun tale of dinner plates with written messages being flung out of prison windows into the sea for passing boats.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

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