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

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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links