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

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The Independent Online
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.