The title of this book might suggest something along the lines of Forever Amber or the Angelique books, but that is far from the case. This is no ripping yarn, still less a bodice-ripping yarn but a serious historical study, whose author has made something of a speciality of historical biographies, many of which have attained best seller status. It may seem a curious idea to view the life of one of Europe’s longest-reigning monarchs from the viewpoint of his relations with women, but this merely demonstrates the problem facing any historian wanting to add to the already large pile of books about the Sun King: the need to find a new angle to refresh familiar material.
Familiar that is to history students, but this book is aimed at a more general readership, as the explanatory material at the start of the book indicates. Here we find a six-page summary of the political events before and during Louis’s reign, a further four pages of family trees showing the complex interlockings of the royal families of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, plus notes on the principal characters to be encountered in the text. Since there are over 60 of these, to say nothing of countless minor ones, these pages stand to be well-thumbed.
Louis XIV, who died in 1715 at the age of 77, was exceptionally long-lived for the period and this gave him scope for two marriages (the latter morganatic), some early flirtations, a number of mistresses and many offspring, both legitimate and subsequently legitimised in the manner of the times. At a time when women enjoyed little education, Louis favoured those that were able to entertain him with their conversation, as well as sharing his passions for dancing and hunting. These diversions allowed a relaxation from the formalities of court life – although French court behaviour was relaxed in comparison with that in Spain, where the infanta, Maria Theresa, Louis’s first wife, was not permitted to open, let alone read, his letters, still less to meet him, even in public, before they were married.
Louis succeeded to the throne at the age of five and, though he came officially of age at 13, France was largely in the hands of his mother, Anne of Austria, and her chief minister, Mazarin, for a further decade. On Mazarin’s death, the king decided to appoint no further chief minister but to rule himself: ‘L’état c’est moi.’ In that capacity, he governed in the style of an absolute monarch, machinating in the affairs of neighbouring states, frequently going to war and determining how the French would be permitted to live in some detail.
From the point of view of this narrative, much of these concerns are in the nature of ‘noises off’ as the concentration is on matters closer to the royal household. This allows another side of the king to emerge: his growing passion for building and then extending the palace of Versailles, a monumental work that continued for over 30 years. The desire to create the most magnificent palace in Europe was prompted by an invitation to the castle of a nobleman that was grander than anything then in Louis’s possession. The cost of upstaging the king was a year in prison. What helps to put the grandeur of Versailles in perspective is the predicament of those obliged to live there during the endless building works, where constant dust and dirt made the requirement to be well-attired difficult to maintain.
To return to the main theme, Louis appears for the most part to have been an agreeable and even generous lover, fond of his children and grandchildren and interested in their education. The illegitimate offspring, regardless of source, were brought up together in a house established for the purpose. There they were, educated under the pious tutelage of the Marquise de Maintenon, who was later to become Louis’s last mistress and subsequently wife, though the marriage was never officially announced. The Marquise went on to found a school at St-Cyr expressly for the education of poor but well-born girls, a development which Louis actively supported, often attending concerts and theatrical events there.
There is a suggestion that the Marquise de Maintenon was something of a mother-figure, a safe harbour to which to return after a tempestuous love life. If so, she provided a neat book-end to match that of Louis’s dominating mother at either end of his long reign.
Whether you will enjoy this book will depend on how you like your history. If you prefer the narrative to cover details of the major events of the period concerned, you may find the narrow focus frustrating. However, that focus is, after all, what the book sets out to provide. If, on the other hand, you like your pictures of the past to be composed more of the personalities concerned, this book should serve you very well, for these characters are clearly delineated and their affairs described in a straightforward and easily readable style, without academic flourishes – though you will probably need to keep a finger in the introductory pages to keep track of them all.
Review by Martin Hills.
Published in paperback by Phoenix
ISBN 9788-0-7538-2293-7 £9.99