I recently saw a film by Alan Rickman (whom I love) called A Little Chaos about the building of the gardens at Versailles under Louis XIV. While the film was imperfect, it sparked an interest in learning a little bit more about Louis XIV and his court. Not knowing quite where to start, I put out a call for recommendations on facebook and was gratified to get several responses fairly quickly. The winner this time around was from my friend’s mom (and my high school librarian!), Sharon, who recommended Antonia Fraser’s Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King.
Fraser traces the history of Louis XIV’s court through his relationships, from his youthful courtship with Marie Mancini, daughter of his mother’s advisor and deemed inappropriate for a future king, and his ultimate marriage to Maria Teresa of Spain to his many mistresses, the most prominent being Louise de la Valliere; Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan; and Francoise d’Aubigne, Madame de Maintenon, the governess of the Marquise de Montespan and Louis XIV’s children. Fraser also highlights lesser trysts and Louis’ affectionate relationships with some of his female relatives, including his first sister-in-law Henriette Anne and his granddaughter-in-law, Adelaide. Though his love life was a source of despair for his steadfastly devout mother, it was from her, the indomitable Anne of Austria, that Louis learned proper respect and support for women, as well his unwavering belief in his place in the world as the Sun King, a god among men.
My biggest trouble with the book was the names. There were hundreds of courtiers referenced at various points, and it even became confusing with the major players at times. You see, all the women were named some combination of Francoise, Louise, Marie, or Anne, and all the children born were named Louis or Louise-something else. Or at least it seemed that way. Francoise-Marie, Louise-Marie, Francoise-Louise, Louis-August, Louis-Alexandre, Anne-Louise, Marie-Anne. I might have made up a few there, but there probably was someone with each of those names at court. Even with Fraser clarifying what nicknames and titles she would use at the beginning, there were enough similar names and titles that I still sometimes wondered exactly who I was reading about when dealing with anyone but Louis, his wife and 3 main mistresses, and his brother (Monsieur) and his wives. Even the British stayed with the format, using Mary and Anne until they could come up with no more combinations (though they did branch out for the second names). Thank goodness for the Hapsburgs: they sent over women to Louis’s court with very distinct names, like Monsieur’s second wife Elisabeth-Charlotte, who went by Liselotte, and Adelaide, wife of Louis’s grandson to name a few. And, of course, this is not Fraser’s fault but the quirks of naming in a very insular and inbred court and European society. I just wish the French had had a little more creativity.
The text, though, is really very good. Fraser has a wonderfully chatty style. It is clear that she had done immense and quality research, but she delivers her information as a narrative, allowing for a much more engaging read. Louis’ court was really a fascinating even scandalous place to be, and Fraser’s style fits the history nicely. Reading about the court of Louis XIV is like having a good-natured gossip with Fraser over a cup of tea. She does not necessarily hide her own thoughts or opinions about events, people, and decisions, but she does not write them in a way that forces you as the reader to either agree or view the subjects through that lens only. She will tell us what she thinks, but she really wants us to assess her subject for ourselves. She has set quite a task for herself because she is essentially writing at least 5 (and really more) biographies in one. As such her organization and charm, both maintained throughout the entire work, are impressive.
Another friend recommended a more academic work on the role music played at Versailles during Louis XIV’s reign (something I am definitely planning on reading at some point). Though music was not the focus, I was delighted that Fraser paid attention to music, particularly mentioning Lully and Charpentier, those great court ballet composers. I suppose the ballets were inextricable from romance in Louis’ court, but it was a nice little treat to see the topic not completely glossed over.
All in all, Fraser presents an exhaustive account of the role love and women played in Louis XIV’s life in a way that doesn’t feel exhausting. It’s important to note that Love and Louis XIV is not a complete biography. It deals with topics like policy, Versailles, war, etc. in as much as they connect with Louis’s romances and female relationships. But it is an excellent introduction to the time period and Louis himself and paints a much more revealing portrait of the role women played during his reign than one might find in other biographies. I really enjoyed it and would certainly recommend it. Fraser is an excellent historian and storyteller, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.