When one gets sick, it’s always assumed that it’s the perfect time to thin one’s personal to-read pile. In some ways it is: after all, it’s not as if one can get up and go to work, or have life in general cut into one’s reading time when one is supposed to be lying down and recovering. Unfortunately, not all illnesses prove conducive to reading. It may be easy to read a book when one is sick with a cold, but when one is doubled-over with gastroenteritis, then it’s a bit more difficult to muster up the necessary focus for anything beyond terrible reality TV shows.
This was very much the case with myself. After picking up a stomach bug from who-knows-where (though I speculate it was either dirty ice or spoilt milk from my favorite milk-tea shop), I wound up pinned to my bed, unable to consume anything more than small sips of water and crackers, and downing medication by the handful. This also meant that my brain wasn’t working in tip-top shape, either, which made any and all reading grind to a halt. It was only two or three days after I first started medication, when I was really, truly beginning to recover (and was eating a lot more than just crackers) that I decided to read Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King by Antonia Fraser.
Now, this is not to say that Love and Louis XIV is a simple book – far from it. But it did seem like a good “middling ground” sort of a book, especially when looking at my other choices: a stack of romance novels (gastroenteritis is thoroughly unromantic), or some interesting novels I’d already lined up since I was getting towards the end of my non-fiction kick. Fraser’s book was no novel, based as it was solidly on fact, which meant I wouldn’t have to exert my imagination much in order to recreate the glory of the Sun King’s court, but it still promised a great deal of entertainment.
In that regard, it certainly delivered. Love and Louis XIV was entertaining in its account of Louis’ relationships with women, but it also provided a chronicle of his relationship with the Church, which disapproved of some of those relationships he had with women. Alternating with glittering court scenes and tales of scandals and maneuverings at the court of the Sun King are stories of the Church attempting to reform the amorous monarch – something which eventually, surprisingly, actually worked, mostly thanks to Anne of Austria’s early influence on her son’s ideas regarding adultery and extra-marital affairs.
Fraser identifies five women who might be considered crucial to Louis’ life, but his mother, Anne of Austria, was perhaps the most important. Unlike many other noblewomen of her time (and certainly unlike a great many queens), she was a very hands-on mother, taking an active part in raising her children and therefore shaping them into the people they would become later on in life. A devout Catholic, she raised Louis to not only be a king, but also to have a great deal of respect for the Church – and a great deal of concern for the state of his soul. While alive she took an active part in the saving of his soul: for instance, manipulating the fate of Marie Mancini (with help from the girl’s uncle, Cardinal Mazarin) to ensure that she would not get in the way of Louis’ duty to marry Marie-Therese (or Maria-Teresa, as she was known in Spain), who was Anne’s niece and her ideal candidate as Louis’ wife.
Of all the women in the book, Queen Anne is the one I find the most fascinating – mostly because I read about her in The Three Musketeers and loved her as a character in that book. Surprisingly, it appears Dumas managed to capture her pretty accurately, except perhaps when it comes to the issue of her affair with the Duke of Buckingham. It was interesting to read how much of that fictional depiction of her overlaps with the reality of her as researched by Fraser, and personally satisfying to realize that both Fraser and Dumas appear to agree a great deal about who she was as a person and as a queen. While the more critical part of me wonders if Fraser might not have been just a bit blinded by Dumas’ own glowing prose, I rather tend to believe that Fraser, as a serious researcher, would not have allowed such a thing to happen, and whatever qualities of Dumas appears in her writing regarding Queen Anne, they must be backed up by fact.
The second woman who might be considered vital in Louis’ life is Marie-Therese. As Louis’ wife and Queen of France, this should be obvious, but in the long run she didn’t seem to have been as important as Louis’ mistresses – or at least, that was the idea I got from Fraser’s book. It’s clear she was important enough to Louis that he did not take another (official) wife to take her place when she died, but the space she occupied in his life was clearly more an official as opposed to a romantic and personal one. Fraser clarifies, though, that this might not entirely have been Marie-Therese’s fault: her upbringing at the Spanish court had left her ill-prepared for the culture of the French court, and therefore unable to fulfill the role of Queen as Louis had imagined it (and as Anne herself had shaped it). Fraser opines in the book that, while Marie-Therese might have made a great Spanish queen (and for a while, she could have been: the royal line of Spain and Portugal at the time was a confused, tangled mess, with heirs constantly dying out, and since Spain did not have anything like the French Salic Law of inheritance, she could have ruled Spain and Portugal in her own right), as a French queen, she was a disaster waiting to happen – and she certainly was that, in the public sphere, anyway. This, therefore, left the public role of the Queen of France (as set by Queen Anne, and as idealized by Louis himself) open to someone else. This role would be filled by Louis’ famous mistresses: Louise de La Valliere, Duchesse de La Valliere; Athenais, Marquise de Montespan; and Francoise, Madame de Maintenon.
It is in the discussion of these mistresses and their children that things get more than a little confusing, since the names tend to get in the way. Fraser attempts to mitigate this confusion by giving a list of all the key players in the book at the very beginning, in a section titled “Principal Characters,” but despite this, names get mixed up all the time: there were times in the middle of the book when I would get Athenais mixed up with Francoise because Athenais is actually named Francoise-Athenais, and Fraser uses that full name on occasion instead of just adhering to the more distinct Athenais. And since the mistresses tended to name their children after each other sometimes, it was difficult trying to figure out which child was whose – particularly in the case of Madame de Maintenon, who got started out as the governess for Athenais’ children before becoming Louis’ mistress. It might be argued that some of that confusion might be due to the fact that I was sick at the time I was reading this, but since I was already on the mend by the time I got to this part of the book and I was still throwing my hands up in confusion, I rather think it might be an organizational flaw of the book.
I found myself wishing that Fraser had thought to break up her list of “Principal Characters,” spreading it out across the four major sections of the book (each named after the four seasons of the year), instead of putting them all down in one massive lump at the start of the book, where they could easily have been forgotten by the reader by the time he or she was in the thick of the book itself. In the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Shikibu Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, translator Royall Tyler does precisely that, prefacing every chapter with a gradually-updated list of crucial characters who are central in that particular chapter of the book. While it’s true that such a mechanism is necessary in that particular instance, given that The Tale of Genji has a truly massive cast of characters, I think something similar would have worked very, very well in Fraser’s book, to help keep all the names straight.
As a matter of fact, it would appear that organization is a major concern in this book. Stories interweave and collide on a frequent basis, and while this is unsurprising given the number of players, it certainly made things rather confusing in the middle third of the book. Fraser jumps from personage to personage, often making leaps from past to present and occasionally to the future, in a manner that can leave the reader scratching his or her head and wondering just where he or she is in the context of the story. While I have absolutely no issue with multiple or colliding storylines, or even ones that jump back and forth across the timeline, I do take issue with the way such techniques are handled. Not all writers are capable of keeping the reins of narrative tight enough to have the story not seem like a mess, and unfortunately Fraser is not one of those writers. She does so much better when she only has one subject to focus on (her biography of Marie Antoinette is my favorite example), but when she has more than one primary character, and therefore more than one competing storyline, she doesn’t do so well.
Overall, Love and Louis XIV is not only entertaining, but in its own way enlightening, particularly when it highlights Louis’ conflict between his role as king (and all the expectations that come with it); his own emotional needs as a person; and his sense of his own faith and his standing with the Church. Many women, from his mother Queen Anne to Marie-Therese to his mistresses played crucial roles in his life, and Fraser takes time and care to depict their struggles equally: not even the great Marquise de Montespan, in many ways the most glorious of Louis’ mistresses, was without her own troubles. The heartbreaking story of Louise de La Valliere, who loved Louis for who he was, and not because of his title, stands out, as does the story of Madame de Maintenon (who was quite the bluestocking in her own way), whom Louis married in secret years after Marie-Therese had died.
However, while the stories themselves are fascinating, it is the way they’re presented that may create some trouble for the reader. Fraser attempts to tell these many stories side-by-side as they happen in the timeline, but is not above jumping to the past and to the future on occasion if she feels it necessary. This creates a certain lack of organization and tight narrative that constantly pulls the reader out of the story, instead of allowing him or her to completely immerse himself or herself in the narrative. If the reader can overcome that particular problem with this book (keeping notes ought to help), then this is as entertaining and as insightful a book as anyone interested in the Sun King, his life, and his loves could ever hope for.