This spring, NYRB Classics will reissue Frederick the Great, the last of the four biographies Nancy Mitford wrote in her lifetime. The three prior biographies each focused on French subjects: Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and Louis XIV. Attracted to her wit, I have been looking forward to digging into these and decided to start with the one that covers the earliest period of time, The Sun King (1966).
This book has one of the best first sentences I know, a sentence that shows the tone, the wit, and the clear subjects of the biography:
Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.
Louis XIV began his reign in 1643, at the age of five. He finally died in 1715, just days before his 77th birthday, well after almost everyone else he knew, including legitimate children and grandchildren, leaving the throne to his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV.
The Sun King covers his life in more or less chronological order, from the early days of his personal reign (starting in 1661 when his chief minister Cardinal Mazarin died) when he was converting “his father’s little hunting lodge” into the new seat of government in Versailles, to the final days when he died unsure whether the frail Louis XV would live (he did, and died at the age of sixty-four, having reigned for nearly sixty years; it’s during this reign that Madame de Pompadour and Voltaire come in).
Far from a stodgy biography of one of history’s strongest monarchs, a man whose commissioned paintings depict him as the Sun King, Mitford’s biography is a giddy and guilty little treat, as if she were a tabloid journalist wandering around Versailles, recording the foibles of the aristocracy.
Of course, besides Louis XIV, the main topics of this story are also introduced in that opening sentence: Versailles and the women who went up and down in his favor.
Versailles itself gets quite a lot of attention at the beginning of the book when Louis XIV is trying to make it “grand without being pompous” (not so sure he succeeded here, but Mitford, who died at her home in Versailles, seems to think he did). We learn about the aristocrats who didn’t like that Louis was shifting the seat of government from Paris to Versailles, about the ministers who did the design and ensured, as best they could, that funds would continue to flow in. Soon Versailles almost like a party palace, and, though Louis XIV was a smart leader of what was arguably the strongest world power at the time, we get the sense he was the king of the party.
And the women. Throughout the book we learn the names of women vying to become his principal mistress (though many of them still succeeded in sleeping with him and bearing him children, that did not do them much good).
It takes little time for the King’s looks to stray from Louise de La Vallière to another — and then another, all, of course, while he was married to the Queen. Here’s a fun passage about an early transition, perhaps instigated by some kind of voodoo performed on the woman:
Mme Voisin knew a priest who was willing to help. He read the Gospel over Mme de Montespan’s head; there was some nonsense with pigeon’s hearts under a consecrated chalice; and she prayed: ‘Please let the King love me. Let Monseigneur le Daupin be my friend and may this love and this friendship last. Please make the Queen sterile; let the King leave La Vallière and never look at her again; let the Queen be repudiated and the king marry me’. It was all rather harmless and undeniably successful.
Yes, poor La Vallière:
The King’s looks in the direction of La Vallière were getting fewer and colder, though this did not prevent him from giving her another baby as a parting present.
Mme de Montespan went on to have seven children with the King.
Besides going through the King’s life and his interests in Versailles and women, The Sun King also presents other topics, such as the rampant poisonings going on among the upper class and the awful services provided by the physicians.
Yet as fun as the book is to read, the tone changes when the Queen dies and Louis marries Mme de Maintenon in a secret ceremony. At about this time, the tone around Versailles and the tone in Mitford’s book shifted from light and fun to serious and weighty. Louis XIV had a kind of conversion and began to strictly uphold — on the outside — the rules of the church, and he enforced these beliefs on his subjects. To make matters worse, as he aged, feeling quite healthy and strong, he watched his line diminish, not knowing if he would have any heirs, something that must have seemed ridiculous in the mind of the Sun King, the man verifiably divinely appointed to rule France in a Golden Age.