- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006


By Antonia Fraser

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $32.50, 416 pages


To say that King Louis XIV of France was a ladies’ man understates the facts.

He was the Sun King, the medieval monarch who issued the famously egotistical proclamation “I am the state.” He was also a man around whom revolved a galaxy of beautiful and often intelligent women. Not only did Louis do his best to love them all, but by the standards of his times, he displayed a degree of consideration and even compassion in dealing with a formidable array of mistresses of widely varying personality.

What perhaps makes Ms. Fraser’s portrait of Louis most intriguing is her theory that the king liked the company of women. He liked them as friends as well as lovers. Of course, being king, he rarely failed in his amorous pursuits and he did not permit affection to interfere with politically important alliances. He was capable of being quite callous in his use of princesses to advance national interests, whether they liked it or not.

That the dynasty came first in the mind of the king was brutally demonstrated in the case of Louis’ niece, the unhappy Princess Marie Louise, whom he married off to the “cruel and cretinous” King Carlo of Spain despite objections that led her to fling herself at the royal feet in a plea not to be condemned to such a fate. With what Ms. Fraser terms “true indifference,” Louis told the princess, “Goodbye. Forever.”

Yet he was, according to his biographer, genuinely fond of his niece: “He simply put duty as he saw it — her duty to uphold the interests of France in Spain — above human feelings. And expected others to do so.”

Argues Ms. Fraser: “Louis XIV was a philanderer but he was not a monster … He disliked disobedience but he did not like cruelty and humiliation either.” He was the son of Anne of Austria, childless for 22 years before giving birth to Louis, and she instilled in him not only her Catholic piety but a concept of absolute power. Even as he entered middle age, leaving the golden years, he retained the essence of the majesty to which he had been raised.

“If he no longer astonished onlookers with his godlike beauty, his sheer presence commanded them … And then there was his voice, the unmistakable voice of a King, seldom raised, expecting always to be obeyed.”

He was the center of a heavily female world, and he reveled in it. When he wed the Spanish Infanta, Maria Teresa, he promised on their wedding day that he would be in her bed every night. And he was, even if he didn’t get there until he left the arms of another lover at dawn.

Perhaps the queen should have complained more, as Louis, sublimely self-confident, could be indulgent with temperamental women. His epitaph for his long suffering and faithful wife was steeped in irony. After she died the agonizing death that accompanied illness in the Middle Ages, the king said of the “shy, unhappy, dull but ever dutiful” woman to whom he had been married for more than 20 years, “This is the first trouble she has ever given me.”

The same could not be said of his mistresses. Louise de la Valliere was considered his romantic love, seducing him at 16, bearing him numerous children and ultimately fleeing to a convent. But his real passion was for the voluptuous and tempestuous Athenais de Montespan who, according to Ms. Fraser, maintained her power through “sexual thrall.” According to the records of the time, even the all powerful Sun King threw up his hands over the demands of Athenais, telling his court, “She must have whatever she wants.”

And whatever she wanted was spectacular. She lived in elaborate apartments at court, was showered with jewels, had her own little “pleasure house” and was nicknamed “The Torrent” or “Quanto,” meaning “how much?”

Yet it illustrates Louis’ pragmatism about women that the shrewdly intelligent Francoise de Maintenon, once a governess to the myriad royal bastards, became the king’s best friend, and ultimately his morganatic wife after the death of the queen.

Their marriage was never formally announced, but her position at court was made clear by the king’s behavior toward her. And the last love of the monarch’s life — a platonic obsession — was with Adelaide of Savoy, the child bride of Louis’ grandson who was precociously intelligent enough to endear herself to de Maintenon as well as her powerful grandfather figure of the king.

The book vividly portrays the extravagance of life at the French court in the 17th century, especially in a description of the “vagabond court” which rolled to war. That “great caravan” included thousands of soldiers but within its ranks were playwrights like Moliere and historians like Racine, as well as the king and queen, not to mention the royal mistresses, scrabbling for seniority.

“None of this traveling majesty was proof against the weather,” reports Ms. Fraser, describing how the unlikely assembly was forced to sleep in one room of a primitive farmhouse. The most irreverent comment on that bizarre occasion came from a cynical sister of de Montespan who said that hearing cattle lowing outside a window, with straw inside, made her think of the birth of Christ.

Yet Ms. Fraser also reminds that those who lived in medieval splendor remained at the mercy of disease because there was virtually no medical protection against it. Falling sick in a palace carried as high a risk as that of a peasant in a cottage. Measles could be deadly, as could any infection because of medical ignorance, lack of anesthetics and treatment that could only be described as brutal.

For all of Louis’ silver furniture and silver-potted orange trees at Versaille, the mindless hedonism of the age could not compensate for the lack of medical knowledge because lives could rarely be saved and even Louis suffered agonies from a treatment that did prove successful. It was proved repeatedly that not even the Sun King could countermand the great leveler of death.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.



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