BOOK REVIEW / His character was too sober, his blood too salty: 'Louis XVI' - John Hardman: Yale University Press, 19.95 pounds

Share
Related Topics
MONARCHS divide into three categories, 'Good', 'Bad' and 'Much Misunderstood'. Of the last, our own history has thrown up some notable examples. Even now that we know George I was a cultivated aesthete, shrewd international politician and able linguist, he is stuck, for ever it seems, with Thackeray's grossly slanderous portrayal of him as a Teutonic boor. William of Orange, a far better king than the English deserved, is now the bogeyman of Tory revisionists, who have set up their own Much Misunderstood candidate in the unlikely figure of his egregious father-in-law, James II.

Does Louis XVI belong in this galere? Most historians have so far thought not, and the verdict on him has tended to be that expressed in Auden's notorious lines 'History to the defeated / May say alas] but cannot help or pardon'. Apart from its scholarly professionalism, John Hardman's biography of the king deserves an accolade for its courage in breaking the curious silence that has surrounded Louis since his execution 200 years ago.

Louis was a precocious boy with a talent for algebra and physics, whose favourite book was Hume's History of England. When the philosopher visited France in 1763, the nine-year-old prince made him a speech of welcome and dragooned his little brothers into doing the same.

The notion of Versailles in the last Ancien Regime decades as a vortex of luxury, gossip and intrigue surrounding a pleasure-loving tyrant is belied by Louis's own character: sober, reticent and generally deficient in the sort of glamour the French admire in their political masters. He was the first ruler of France for at least 200 years not to view marital inconstancy as a professional obligation, a fact that may, ironically, have contributed to the unexpressed but always present sense that his execution was in some way a punishment for failing to be enough of a king in the approved 18th-century style.

What Harriman calls 'the central tragedy of the reign', the king's unwillingness to come to terms with the crucial third element in the Estates General, composed of influential commoners, was heightened by his ominous silences. The fury of the revolutionaries was kindled as much by what Louis declined to say or do as by his ultimate betrayal of their trust. Again and again in reading this account, we become aware of the author's scrupulous fairness towards his subject being tested against the strikingly negative personality of the man himself.

Like other deposed rulers, Louis gained in moral stature as his outer casings of authority were stripped away. He became touching in his sheer ordinariness, eating six cutlets for dinner on the first day of his trial and telling his valet not to bother curling his hair before his beheading.

The single serious weakness of Hardman's book for the general reader is its continuous reluctance to give us more such humanising detail, as if he were afraid we might take him for a mere biographer. Perhaps this is why Marie Antoinette is made to seem little better than a meddling, semi-literate harpy, in the context of the Diamond Necklace affair a sort of Fergie avant la lettre. Who on earth were the gainers in the guillotining of this dim pair? Perhaps only the mob at the scaffold who drank the king's blood. 'It tastes quite good,' some said. Others thought it much too salty.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own