Saturday, April 20, 2013

Love and Louis XIV, by Antonia Fraser

I recently decided that I’m not doing enough to keep up with my professional training; that is, being a historian.  My bookshelves are littered with non-fiction works of all kinds – popular histories, biographies, and groundbreakers.  But they normally get passed over in favour of the more easily digestible fictions.  However, I’m going to try and change that.  That’s what lead me to my latest read, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, by Antonia Fraser.

I’ve read a few biographies by Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette), and for a while there, I was inspired to buy up a lot of biographies based on how much I enjoyed reading hers.  But Fraser as an author stands in a class of her own – she’s able to take some potentially dry materials and craft them into a dynamic telling of a handful of lives. 

Love and Louis XIV, as the name suggests, it about Louis XIV of France, and details his personal life.  Fraser begins with the filial love Louis had for his mother, Queen Anne, and details how strong it was and the lasting impact it would have on his career as a king.  Fraser then moves on to describe those early throws of first love that Louis experienced with a bevy of ladies at Court; his marriage to Marie-Therese of Spain; his friendship with his sister-in-law, Henriette-Anne; his first love affair with Henriette-Anne’s lady, Louise; his far more passionate affair with his long-term mistress, and mother of many of his children, Athénaïs; and finally his morganic marriage to Mme de Maintenon, with whom he spent his declining years.  Peppered throughout the tales of these luminaries in Louis’ life is the occasional ‘one-night stand’ and platonic friendship with a lady at court.

Fraser’s account does not limit itself to just the love life of the King; rather, she provides a surrounding (and truncated) version of French and world affairs at the times in question.  While some of it is germane to the discussion of Louis’ love-life, I found much of it to be unrelated, and thought this was a major flaw in the account; if I wanted a break-down of French politics, I wouldn’t have picked up a book with a title that implied it would examine the King’s personal life.  While I admit that much of a King’s personal life is tied up with national and international politics, I found this information infringed too much and too often on the parts of the book which the title had led me to expect.

Regardless, Fraser’s account is engaging, interesting, and occasionally humorous.  Fraser presents the foibles and going-ons of the French Court in an academic manner, but doesn’t shy from pointing out hypocrisies and weaknesses in her subjects.  I found this humanized those she wrote about, and added an interesting layer to the tale.

The book is well laid-out, and helpful to amateurs of French history.  Included in the front section of the book is a complex family tree (complicated by the frequency with which the royal family intermarried, and the number of dynastic Christian names dolled out to babies), a summary of the principal players, and a time-line of Louis’ reign (which, I think, makes the passages in the text about the politics even more redundant to Fraser’s purposes).

Regardless of the flaws, I found this to be a fascinating read.  So, final verdict?  I would recommend this book (and any of Fraser’s biographies) to anyone looking to learn more about the Sun King’s Court and private life.  Fraser’s wit and abilities are on display with this book, and I enjoyed the read immensely.  

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