June 2012

Mary Mann

nonfiction

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

Gleeful: this is the word that best describes Nancy Mitford's biography of King Louis XIV of France. The Sun King, a telling of the royal's life from the breaking of ground at Versailles to his death in his glittering rooms there, reads like a tell-all about a group of Mitford's close friends. It's hard to believe that he was dead nearly two hundred years before she wrote it.

Versailles, as Mitford tells us in the first line, was "the love of Louis XIV's life" -- far more than his wife or any of his mistresses. He began supervising construction of this unprecedentedly grand estate in his twenties, and added on to it regularly until his death. Before building was even complete, the King moved all of France's best society to Versailles from Paris, despite his courtiers' pleas that country air "is unhealthy."

It was an odd thing to do in the seventeenth century, still odder if one thinks about it today: the closest comparison would be if New York's Mayor Bloomberg took all of the richest and most cultured people in Manhattan and forced them to move permanently to a palatial estate in Vermont. Mitford describes the costly and unprecedented building of Versailles in detail, from the "oriental luxury" of the rooms to the expansive gardens lined with orange trees in silver tubs, of which the King was "passionately fond."

Yet while Versailles was the passion of Louis XIV, it is the people he gathered there that receive the most (well-deserved) attention in Mitford's telling. The oddities of Louis XIV, which include obsessions with renovation, warfare, and sex, pale in comparison to those of his brother, the Monsieur, one of "history's most famous sodomites." The Monsieur loved to participate in battles, but would always arrive late with full make-up on -- paint, powder, eyelash glue -- and bedecked in diamond and ribbons. He even refused to wear a hat while engaging in combat, "for fear of flattening his wig."

Then there is Louis XIV's first wife, the simple Queen Marie-Therese, whose teeth were apparently black from eating too much chocolate and garlic (which Mitford notes offhand as if this were an obvious consequence) and who spent her days playing with "little dogs and half-mad dwarves."

The King's series of mistresses are also well documented, from the tragic Louise de la Valliere, who bore him four children and whiled away her sunset years in a convent, to the lively Madame de Montespan, who was the mother of seven of his children and supposedly won the king's heart with magic spells which entailed "calling in Satan" and "some nonsense with pigeon hearts."

Louis XIV indulges himself with these women and many others, including maids and ladies in waiting, all of it shockingly out in the open. Yet the King ends his days with his alleged second wife, the most unlikely Madame de Maintenon, an incredibly pious women who he referred to as "your solidity." She gave him advice on all matters of court and state, but dreaded his twice daily visits to her bed (which continued well into their old age).

Mitford shines a light on the enigmatic and secretive character of Louis XIV through the company he keeps, and does so in a compellingly cavalier way. It's impossible to read this telling of his life without laughing, sighing, and gasping. "The King's person was the magic which made all wheels turn in France," writes Mitford. And when Louis XIV dies, the reader, like France, is at a loss.

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590174913
272 pages