Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

By day it had a different aspect, serving as the main street or market place of that City of the Rich.  It was packed with people; servants hurrying to and fro with messages, courtiers button-holing each other for a chat, or dashing at top speed from one ceremony to the next; cows and asses on their way to provide fresh milk for little princes--all this was occasionally pushed aside so that some royal sedan chair could get by, like the ministers' motor cars in a modern capital.  Here, too, could be seen foreign visitors and tourists, easily recognizable by their strange clothes and aimless gait, looking round them in wonder.  Versailles was more truly open to the public then than nowadays; anybody could wander in at any hour.  There were seldom fewer than two hundred fiacres waiting outside, where the car-park is now.  Hardly any of the rooms were banned to the ordinary citizen, but if by accident he should stray into one that was, a servant would quietly follow him, pretending that it was to draw a curtain or make up a fire, and point out his mistake in a low voice so that he would not feel humiliated.  The kings at Versailles, almost unguarded, lived in a perpetual crowd, and yet, in a hundred years there was only one half-hearted attempt at assassination.

Louis XIV reigned longer than any European monarch has to this day--nearly 72 years.  In that time, he oversaw the completion of the enormous palace known as Versailles, and the wholesale transfer of the French political class from Paris into it.  He also fought several wars, including the nearly ruinous War of the Spanish Succession, and witnessed the death of his son and his son's son, his two heirs, in close succession.  He's remembered today as an avatar of the divine right of kings, and the apotheosis of the symbolic power of use of wealth.

I think I thought Nancy Mitford's biography of Louis was a historical novel when I bought it.  It's not that; it's a straight history, but it doesn't read like a historical biography today might.  Though it's steeped in primary sources--mostly the letters and diaries of Louis' courtiers--there's minimal hand-wringing over how to balance or analyze or look through them.  The tone is breezy and casual, and enhanced by Mitford's keen eye for baroque detail, like the King's doctor who, "[w]hen obliged to go out, he covered himself with a morocco robe and mask and wore six pairs of stockings and several fur hats.  He always kept a bit of garlic in his mouth, incense in his ears, and a stick of rue sticking out of each nostril."  Mitford's account of L'affaire des Poisons, in which dozens of people, mostly women, including many courtiers and Louis' paramour Madame de Montespan, were accused of using poison and witchcraft to punish their rivals and, often, their spouses, is as lurid as it deserves to be.  I also did not know that the "Man in the Iron Mask"--a mysterious prisoner shuttled between French prisons, and kept in a mask all his life, thought by Voltaire to be the king's twin brother--was real.

Here's the thing: Louis XIV was a piece of shit.  I'm not sure how you can avoid this conclusion in 2018.  One of the big themes of his life, according to Mitford's account, is his shift toward piety after his second marriage to the devout Madame de Maintenon.  Louis regretted his early sexual escapades, and sought to live a more upright life, but that vision of piety never extended to a more conscientious treatment of France's poor.  In fact, Mitford frequently emphasizes that the Sun King hated hearing about the poor, and banished people that talked excessively about their plight from his presence.  The symbolism of Versailles, both in its ostentatious wealth and its pointed isolation from the common life, underscores the rottenness of the divine right of kings.  It hardly seems mitigated by the fact that Louis, at the height of the economic crisis of the War of Spanish Succession, "melted his gold plate and ate off silver gilt."

Mitford doesn't hide these aspects of Louis' character.  She calls his sense of religion that of a "clever child."  She goes out of her way to point out those who tried, and failed, to bring the poor to Louis' attention.  But mostly, The Sun King seems to admire Louis, and to believe that his shortcomings are balanced by the beauty of his existence.  The King's agony over the death of his wife, his lovers, his heirs, is the object of tremendous sympathy.  It's hard to shake the sense that Mitford, a socialite from a well-known British family, sees an essential beauty in Louis that reflects on her own station.  Maybe that's unfair--I don't know much about her, or her sisters.  But The Sun King definitely left me with a sense that the revolutionaries who sacked Versailles in 1789 came about 100 years too late.

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