Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser

Don't look, here comes the Sun King
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Antonia Fraser is a writer of such ease and evocation that her book on the Sun King and the female stars that surrounded him is probably the nearest we are ever likely to get to the pleasure-loving life at the court of Louis XIV. As she demonstrated in previous biographies of Charles II and Marie Antoinette, for esoteric detail, for marrying moments of grace and wit, no other historian is Fraser's equal.

Now for her leading character she has taken the young prince who elegantly danced as Apollo, the Sun God, then later, the mature monarch who dazzled the whole of Europe. But not everybody will be transfixed by this portrait of the Sun King and his satellites.

According to Voltaire, Louis XIV showed his attributes early. At 18, the prince was "sufficiently master of himself" to sacrifice a love-struck affair with a shy "enchantress" for a political marriage to a sanctimonious, Spanish midget. Marie Teresa of Spain regularly took communion to indicate to the court that "royal conjunction" had taken place the night before. That is the kind of telling detail that makes Fraser so beguiling to read. But she also lends charm to other figures swirling around the crystal ball at Versailles, especially the King's numerous lovers who are vividly drawn, their courtship and "commerce" (lovemaking) with Louis described with delicate urgency.

Fraser professes sympathy for Louis' first important love, Louise de la Valliere, and also for his last mainstay, Mme de Maintenon because they were both torn between fondness, if not love, for their sovereign and the likelihood of suffering eternal hellfire for their adulterous sins. The author makes it clear that this kind of predicament - which was stoked by confessors always eager to whisper in a supplicant's ear - was all too real for those living in the 17th century, however distinguished their position. Fraser, though, also shows a distinct liking for the grand "maîtresse en titre" during the high-water mark of Louis' reign in the 1670s. Known to her friends as "The Torrent" and her enemies as "Quanto" (how much) the Marquise de Montespan would have thrived in any age. She dismissed Louis' extensive restoration of her chateau at Clagny as only fit for a chorus girl. Her body was so enticing her confessor begged "God, make all the man in me die," while her tongue was even more devastating. Told that the Queen's coach had overturned in a stream she informed the king of his priggish consort, "Ah, the Queen drinks."

Yet something is missing from this wondrous world. Like Antony Beever, Antonia Fraser is part of the new school of novel-as-history. The disadavantage of the what-happened-next narrative method is that it does not allow the author to stand above their material, sum up characters, explain outside influences and what a particular period means to us now. It is curious that, though Louis XIV is the king we most associate with the phrase absolute monarchy, throughout her book, Fraser does not mention the word power once. Fraser might respond that her story is about courtly life, fashion, about women. Yet these were all aspects of Louis's power.

This is the king who persuaded his nobles to forsake their land for the court, give up political influence and the potential to rebel. Instead, their monarch offered them Versailles, its fêtes, dances and masques, and led them to the point where their sole preoccupation was to have ribbons and lace strewn on their clothes and feathers stuck in their hats. Fraser hints at this when she mentions "a new uniform designed for the king's friends", but goes no further. Louis, though, helped to invent fashion and was insistent upon it because he knew that in the representation of power we are ruled by appearances, not by the true nature of things. For Louis, making people feel that they had to dress according to his dictates became a political action.

Louis' birth, his morning toilette, the council, his meals, the kitchen, games, hunting, love, the shouts of "Le Roi" as Louis approached, his death - everything at Versailles was immersed in ritual. For how else could all the indicators of the court's precise precedence, hierachy and power be expressed except through ritual?

At the top of the hierachy, of course, stood Louis and Fraser emphasises that Versailles was "a king-centred" court. Even its lighting design was symbolic of that order with the outer corridors kept in the dark while the closer one was to the state apartments the brighter the palace was. At its centre the Sun King ruled. Fraser recounts a meeting at the Saint Cyr school for girls near Versailles where Louis approved of the girls' modesty, "the way they never permitted themselves to stare outright at the august figure of their sovereign, although they were obviously longing to do so". Though Fraser does not extrapolate from this incident it provides the raison d'être of her central character. Ten years later Louis died. In the meantime, because he had erected the apparatus of the monarchy and the absolutist state his people could no longer see him. Sixty years later de la Rochefecauld wrote a maxim about mortality but it is more fitting as a memorial to the Sun King: "Neither death nor the sun can be gazed at fixedly."