Upon leaving his post earlier this year, the French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, invidiously compared the Trump White House to how he imagined the court of France’s greatest king: “It’s like [trying] to analyze the court of Louis XIV,” he told an interviewer. “You have an old king, a bit whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed, but he wants to be the one deciding.” Had Monsieur Araud, who was by no means an insider in Trump’s Washington, bothered to read Louis XIV: The Power and the Glory, Josephine Wilkinson’s new biography of the French king (or any other biography of the man, for that matter), he might have paused before bidding adieu to his diplomatic career with this dim-witted faux pas.
Louis, though not free of human failings or seeing any reason to doubt that he was God’s representative on earth, lived up to the virtues of duty, magnanimity, patience, and even humility.
Wilkinson’s biography goes a long way toward debunking the conventional portrait of Louis XIV (1638–1715) as a capricious tyrant, the legendary “Sun King” so convinced of his own magnificence and obsessed with his own power that he set up France for the doom that befell it seventy-four years after his death. Nor was Louis anything like the moody proto-hipster depicted in the ridiculous and utterly unwatchable recent Franco-Canadian television series Versailles. Instead, in fewer than four hundred pages, we find a highly intelligent and hard-working monarch who regularly put in long, arduous days of grinding paperwork, rarely made any decision without first hearing out royal councilors of demonstrated solicitude and profound experience (rarely departing from their advice), and personally led his armies through all the hardships of seventeenth-century combat past the age at which most men of his era died of natural causes. He almost certainly never uttered “L’état, c’est moi,” the vainglorious dictum of self-absorbed authoritarianism most commonly associated with him. Instead, in a remarkably long reign of seventy-two years, Louis, though not free of human failings or seeing any reason to doubt that he was God’s representative on earth, lived up to the virtues of duty, magnanimity, patience, and even humility that the French monarchist tradition still tries to uphold. In fact, recent polls have indicated that as much as half the population would like one of Louis’ descendants to sit on his throne and serve as head of state in lieu of some empty suit who aced standardized tests administered by the country’s soulless meritocracy.
In Wilkinson’s book, even Louis’ worst excesses find some reasonable, if not always completely convincing, explanation. Those who disappeared by the infamous but in fact rarely used lettre de cachet—a form of arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment—turned out to be traitors, criminals, or just plain jerks. Even Nicolas Foucquet, the extravagant finance minister who was arrested and dispossessed in a power play worthy of Machiavelli, turned out to be enough of a thief that he probably deserved it. Louis’ parade of mistresses—whom Wilkinson treats sympathetically compared to the bland Queen Marie-Thérèse—broke down for the usual reasons once true love had run its course. The better breakups were quite a boon for those generously pensioned off as duchesses with their own châteaux. The dastardly betrayal of the Huguenots, the French Protestant community outlawed by decree in 1685 after decades of relative toleration, emerges more as the culmination of a gradual series of responses to very real political threats than as a sudden and opportunistic turnabout.
Yet Wilkinson’s effort falls short of the definitive scholarly biography that France’s greatest king demands (François Bluche probably came the closest in 1990 with his Louis XIV). Too often the narrative devolves into gossip, weaving serious history with rumors and possibly apocryphal stories about how Louis confounded the noisome ladies of the court when arranging trysts with his mistresses or how the mistresses contended with one other for his affections. Bourgeois bohemians will be captivated by the lengthy descriptions of the king’s organic diet and herbal medical treatments, but government, policy, war, and even treason sometimes get short shrift. The Conspiracy of Lautréaumont in 1672—an episode in which plotters invited a foreign invasion of France before being unmasked and executed—is, for example, dispatched in a subordinate clause. The complexities of the anti-absolutist Frondes, the effective fiscal reforms of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and the intricacies of Louis’ frontier wars receive superficial treatment.
It is amusing to be reminded that Louis once broke off peace negotiations over a demand that he help his adversaries remove his younger grandson from the throne of Spain with the remark that he would gladly fight his enemies, but not his relatives.
Dazzled by her sources, many of which were written to exalt and flatter her subject, Wilkinson tends to accept them uncritically. Did the four-year-old future king truly manifest “a modesty and a self-control extraordinary for one of his age” while being christened as his father and predecessor, Louis XIII, lay dying? Probably not, but it made for good copy in the official Parisian press then, as it does in this biography now. Sometimes Wikinson’s analysis is downright ahistorical. Royal relief for the poor in times of famine could not possibly have been conceived or understood at the time—or correctly described now—as “socialist policies.” Nor would Louis’ discarded mistress Louise de La Vallière have recognized her voluntary entry into a convent after years of stress and humiliation at court as the “living death” that a twenty-first-century academic presumes it to have been. A happier match comes in Wilkinson’s exploration of Louis’ dry wit, though Nancy Mitford’s classic biography The Sun King (1966, not cited in this work) and the Duc de Saint-Simon’s memoirs (used sparingly) address the subject in a more diverting way. Still, it is amusing to be reminded that Louis once broke off peace negotiations over a demand that he help his adversaries remove his younger grandson from the throne of Spain with the remark that he would gladly fight his enemies, but not his relatives, and that he supported his exiled cousin James II of England’s bid to regain his throne, adding that his best wish at their moment of parting was that he would never see him again.
Wilkinson’s biography is marred by a number of unfortunate errors that better proofreading would have eliminated. Louis’ first mistress’s family name morphs from the correct, if complex, de la Baume Le Blanc to the atrociously wrong “de la Baum La Blanc.” A historian of France should know that the noun Académie is feminine and should therefore be modified by the adjective petite rather than petit and that the seventeenth-century king would marry off one of his lesser bastard daughters to a marquis rather than a marquise. Still, Louis XIV: The Power and the Glory is an entertaining read that brings a vanished era to light at a time when the study of history is in a tailspin, even among top diplomats.