So bespangled with glittering personalities, so rife with intrigues, wars and religious strife was the age of the Sun King, that it is easy to understand why Veronica Buckley’s new book, “The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Franoise D’Aubigne, Madame de Maintenon,” is the story of an age rather than the story of a single life. Nominally a biography of Francoise D'Abigne, Louis XIV’s last mistress and his secret wife, Ms. Buckley’s book is more a cultural and political history of 17th-century France.
The facts of Francoise D'Abigne’s life are remarkable — born in a prison to a penniless traitor, murderer and lifelong n’er-do-well and his teenage bride; a child beggar on the streets of La Rochelle; eventually married to the poor and hideously deformed, but socially well-connected poet Paul Scarron; governess to the king’s bastard children by his mistress Athenais, marquise de Montespan; finally, in middle age, the king’s mistress and wife, as well as a pioneer of education for girls and a force for religious reform in Louis‘ court.
While they are a startling demonstration of the (slight) possibility of social mobility in deeply class-bound absolutist France, they are no match for the social and political history of 17th-century Europe: the on-going violence between Catholics and Protestants that became particularly ugly in Louis XIV’s France, where Huguenots were deprived of their positions, property, children, and freedom; the Thirty Years War, the Franco-Dutch War, the Nine Years’ War, the War of Spanish Succession; the beginning of civic unrest among poor and middle-class French people in response to the exploitive taxation policies of the monarchy (unrest that would eventually become the French Revolution); the trial and execution of the English King Charles I; the emergence of constitutional monarchy in England; the building of Versailles and the removal of the French court from Paris; the founding of the Dutch Republic and its emergence as a naval and mercantile superpower.
In the midst of all this, and much fascinating social history besides, Ms. Buckley often loses sight of her nominal subject. For several pages, a chapter, sometimes two, Francoise disappears so that Ms. Buckley — always with an eye for vivid, texture-giving detail — can sketch the larger historical and cultural scenes of Francoise’s age and her contemporaries, Louis XIV chief among them. In one such digression into cultural history, Ms. Buckley describes at length the food served at the French court: the mania for ragouts and new peas in cream, frogs fricasseed, lamb’s tongue fritters in citrus marinade, champagne — “as yet a reddish still wine” whose tendency to fizzle was considered a defect — and chocolate, a controversial beverage newly arrived in Europe from the Spanish colonies.
Madame de Sevigne, celebrated observer of court life and admirer of Francoise, warned her pregnant daughter that this South American delicacy would “burn her blood” and insisted that she had known a marquise who “drank so much chocolate … when she was expecting, that she gave birth to a little boy as black as the devil.” It is this taste for historical texture that makes “The Secret Wife” the marvelous thing that it is — whether Ms. Buckley is discoursing on the 1666 cleanup of Paris (the institution of police, rubbish men, street lights and the opening of royal gardens to the public) or the finer points of 17th-century dress (that the average French court gown weighed 60 pounds, that Spanish gowns flattened the bust with lead plates) or describing the seemingly lesser actors on the European stage (Carlos II of Spain, for example, the limping, dwarfish, feeble-minded king whose abnormally large tongue made speaking and chewing nearly impossible.
His impotence, the result of centuries of inbreeding, and failure to produce an heir set off the War of Spanish Succession — sometimes considered “the very first world war” and fought across Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean and Africa). Madame de Maintenon is somewhat obscured by this richly embroidered tapestry. Those hankering for an intimate portrait of a single life will be disappointed — and not only by the book’s many digressions into other lives and European politics. Ms. Buckley’s method, as is increasingly common in biography, borrows techniques from fiction.
While Ms. Buckley allows the nominally secondary characters in this would-be biography to speak for themselves, she often chooses not to represent Francoise in her own words. Instead, Ms. Buckley speaks for her subject, and in many instances it is hard to tell to what degree these speculative projections are based in source material. A small example demonstrates a tendency evident throughout: In her narration and analysis of Louis and Francoise’s secret, morganatic (i.e. dynastically ineffective) marriage, Ms. Buckley writes of her heroine that, “in her heart, she felt entitled to be Queen.”
Not a scrap of source material justifies this romantic, novelistic flight, nor do the customs of the age (chiefly, the jealously guarded laws of succession that had and would cause devastating wars for France, and the entrenched ideas of the divine right of kings and the great chain of being), nor does Francoise’s recurrent ambivalence about court life and her place in it as a woman of no inherited title or fortune, an ambivalence that Buckley herself details at length. Sometimes, as above, Ms. Buckley presumes too much about Francoise’s inner life. At other times, she does not take enough at face value.
Concerning Francoise’s commitment to Catholicism, Ms. Buckley describes her subject’s faith as pragmatic and detached (“a woman who is scarcely taking the thing seriously at all”) and claims that Francoise’s professed interest in seeing to Louis‘ salvation (a probable motive for their secret marriage — to avoid the mortal sin of fornication) was not, in fact, motivated by religious conviction, but by ambition for glory and reputation. Ms. Buckley is reluctant to accept Francoise’s frequent, ardent assertions to the contrary: After moving to court as the royal governess and becoming Louis‘ lover, for example, Francoise wrote to her confessor that she wanted to “remove herself from a situation very far from assuring my salvation.”
When the king died, Madame de Maintenon left Versailles immediately and lived the rest of her life in the girls’ convent school she had founded, giving away all of her money and possessions and living, in effect, as a nun. The only glories her marriage to the king had earned her at court were the resentments and slanders of higher-born courtiers. In the end, though, Ms. Buckley’s strange unwillingness to believe in Francoise’s belief, and her occasional flights into the novelistic do not diminish the value of “The Secret Wife.” This is a majestic view of a splendid, sordid century, and while it may not be the last word on Madame de Maintenon, it is most certainly a rich, definitive history of her world.
• Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.