The Sun King, By Nancy Mitford

An age of Regal pomp and dodgy plumbing

First published in 1966, Nancy Mitford's biography of Louis XIV has been reissued in the Vintage Classics series, and it deserves to find a new audience.

Although the author gives the Sun King a rather easy ride (she skirts his notorious indifference to the plight of the French poor, for example), her evocation of his lavish court at Versailles is vivid. It's not all pomp and glamour, either: she describes in queasy detail the on-site autopsies that would turn "a gilded bed-chamber into a butcher's shop". We also learn all about the unfortunate consequences of the palace's lack of plumbing, although Mitford, deadpan, assures us that "it is certainly not true that people relieved themselves on the staircase".