In his later, rigidly controlled years, it was said of Louis XIV that if you knew the hour of the day, you would know what the French king was doing. As a man who lived his private life in public, whose every move was noted by ministers, doctors, courtiers and letter- and diary-writers, little remains undiscovered about the Sun King.
In re-treading his multi-recorded life, it's a question of what aspect of the absolute ruler you illuminate. Antonia Fraser chooses to concentrate on Louis's relationships with the women in his life. Just to see the family tree of Louis's progeny is to realise the subject warrants a book. The legitimate offspring from his marriage and "legitimised" children by his mistresses en titre spread in a web that grows more confusing with inter-marriage and interchangeable names - the sons usually named Louis, and the daughters Louise-Françoise or Françoise-Marie.
The earlier part of the book explores aspects less touched on in other biographies. Fraser examines the importance of his mother, Queen Anne of Austria, and her mismatch with Louis's weak and sexually ambivalent father. This strong woman, aware of her Hapsburg grandeur, concentrated all her love on the son born after 22 years of a childless marriage. Louis's feelings towards women were formed by his mother, who also instilled the sense of his own greatness. Anne put paid to a youthful romance with Marie Mancini, niece of Cardinal Mazarin, telling a confidante after a stormy interview with her tearful son, "One day Louis will thank me for the harm I have done him." The way was clear to engineer his marriage with her niece the Spanish Infanta, Marie-Thérèse.
Louis - handsome, virile, rich, and above all, king - would have had mistresses in any case, even if Marie-Thérèse had not been so dull. A near affair with his sister-in-law Henriette, sister of Charles II, was deflected when his eye fell on her maid-of-honour Louise de la Vallière, who was ousted in her turn by the spectacular Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan. The years with Athénaïs were the highpoint of the Sun King's glamour. As Fraser notes, "Like Versailles, she was expensive - and glorious."
During her reign Versailles was transformed into a great palace, with gardens landscaped by Le Nôtre. These were the years that inspired Charles Perrault's fairy tales of enchanted palaces and charming princes.
Abundantly fertile and sexually enthusiastic, Athénaïs had six children with the king. But because she was married to a troublesome husband, they were hidden away under the charge of an impoverished friend, the Widow Scarron. By 1680, Athénaïs had been displaced as mistress by her children's governess, who became the Marquise de Maintenon, and morganatic wife to the king after the death of the queen.
Many biographers - and novelists - take sides for or against the rival mistresses. Montespan is sometimes dismissed for dabbling in witchcraft and having a violent temper, Maintenon for being a religious bigot. Fraser, more even-handedly, sees the king's gradual falling in love with Maintenon, three years older than him, as a return to the pious, controlling mother of his youth. From 1684, around the time of the secret marriage, Maintenon kept notebooks of moral sentiments, one of which - "Keep a rule and it will keep you" - is reminiscent of Mae West's thoughts on diaries.
No matter how the king had returned to keeping the rules, his female offspring behaved like today's WAGs. One teenage daughter was drunk several times a week. A grand-daughter, according to the diarist Saint-Simon, would gorge prodigiously and drink herself unconscious, "rendering in all directions the wine she had swallowed".
The last years of the king's life, blighted by a devastating war he had started, a famine and the deaths of all his direct descendants apart from his great-grandson, the future Louis XV, are like a morality tale. But Fraser brings the book to a heroic ending as Louis faces his own death at 76 from gangrene, with his usual self-control, acknowledging the "severe judge" in heaven to whom even kings must submit. And despite the female casualties "wounded in the King's service", she feels there were far worse options for women in the 17th century than being the king's mistress. Such as being the daughters and nieces condemned by Louis to unhappy marriages, for the sake of his dynasty.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers', set at the court of Louis XIV, is published by ArrowReuse content