Louis XIV of France – also known as ‘The Sun King’ – has gone down in history for a variety of reasons: his immensely long reign, his charming charisma, his military career, his glorious Palace of Versailles, and of course his relationships with women.
Notable and infamous women featured throughout the whole of Louis’ long life, notably his mistresses Louise de la Valliere and Athenais de Monstespan. However, ’Love and Louis XIV’ delves not only into the story of Louis’ mistresses, but also into the lives of his mothers, his sisters-in-law and nieces, his cousins, his wives and daughters, his daughters-in-law and lastly his granddaughter-in-law, Adelaide.
As you can guess, this was quite a vast undertaking for Fraser. Fraser wished to demonstrate to her reader just how significant these ladies were in influencing the reign of the Sun King, whether it was politically, socially or religiously. These women impacted upon Louis’ conflicts and alliances; his court at Versailles and the future of France as a whole. What’s more, by exploring the lives of these unique and fascinating women, Fraser not only reveals a captivating portrait of the King himself, but also gives us a glimpse into the female world in 17th century France.
For me ‘Love and Louis XIV’ read like a novel. Fraser brilliantly brought the women, the King and the French court to life. She did not shy away from voicing her subjects’ failings, nor the scandalous gossip which inevitably surrounded any woman of influence. Yet Fraser’s adoration for her subjects also shone through throughout the book, (perhaps because of their relatable flaws?).
Secondly, I applaud Fraser for her decision to broaden her research which encompassed the lives of other women in Louis’ life, rather than limit it to an account of his wives and mistresses. This gave Fraser’s readers the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of Louis’ mother Anne of Austria, who was the only women allowed to hold political influence over the young French king. Anne is portrayed as a woman who certainly left an impression on the young Louis, which affected his sense of royal duty and his guilt concerning his extra-marital affairs. Other colourful female characters, such as Louis’ sisters-in-law Henriette Anne and the hilarious Liselotte, also take centre-stage at various episodes in the book. Liselotte’s rather frank correspondence featured heavily in Fraser’s research and was an absolute delight to read!
As the book discusses the whole life of Louis XIV’s, readers are allowed a glimpse into the private life of the man himself. His love for women of all social standings and levels of beauty are evident. Readers learn what possibly motivated the King’s desire, as well as what dampened it. His clearly expressed disdain towards any display of female troubles, further highlight what many high-born males expected from women in 17th century France.
How the women interacted with each other was also fascinating for me. I loved discovery how women would view others as rivals when Louis began to show them favour. Yet it would be equally as surprising to discover how those same women would lend support to other female ‘rivals’ when it suited them. It was interesting to read how women closely associated with the King could wield immense power with regards to court factions. Whom these ladies supported and what they believed in, proved to be vital when certain marriage alliances were formed and social morals at court were established.
On a more practical level, ‘Love and Louis XIV’ involved many individuals who were all married – or born into – the French royal family. Therefore, the royal family tress displayed at both the beginning and end of the book, were heavily relied upon as a useful prompt. Fraser also included a wealth of pictorial references, which not only provided a visual reference of certain characters and locations, but also supported the story when Fraser mentioned and described the pictures in the text. Finally, Fraser also included a really informative timeline, which documents the entirety of Louis’ life (76 years!), and summaries important events year-by-year.
There were a lot of individuals mentioned in this book; I mean A LOT! If you’re anything like me and initially struggle to remember people’s names, then you may find your work cut out for you in ‘Love and Louis XIV’. What makes things even worse, is that more often than not the majority of these characters would have remarried, or changed their social standings, which resulted in their titles changing constantly!
Now I understand that this inconvenience is far from Fraser’s fault and as I mentioned before, she did an awesome job is swiftly reminding you of who these characters were. (It’s almost as if she understood my struggle)! However for me personally, I would have preferred it if Fraser had included an extended family tree, perhaps dating back to the reign of Henry IV of France. It would also have been handy to have had a Hapsburg family tree to refer to from time-to-time. This would have been helpful for me, especially when it came to understanding the link between Louis and his extended royal relations during the first few chapters.
Another – only slight! – criticism, is the non-translation of French phrases. Admittedly, this happened very rarely and did not harm the overall reading experience. Yet I found this it did interfere with the flow of the story, (as well as highlighting just how uneducated I am)! I would clarify though that this didn’t occur often, so don’t let this put you off.
Lastly, if you are on the look-out for a detailed account of Athenais de Monstespan’s life, then this may not be the book you’re after. Rather surprisingly, I found that Athenais did not dominate the book as much as I expected her to, despite her forceful personality and 16-year-reign as mistress en titre. If anything, by the tome Athenais was out of the limelight, Louis’ one-time favourite is quickly shoved into the background and only emerges again very briefly throughout the succeeding chapters. Consequently, her later life still remains a bit of a mystery to me, (as well as her reign as Louis’ favourite to a certain extent)… In my opinion, the lives of Anne of Austria, Louise de la Valliere, Maintenon and Adelaide remained at the forefront of Fraser’s work. Rest assured that Athenais is still depicted as a tantalisingly alluring figure in history, so ‘Love and Louis XIV’ only inflamed my interest in her, and encouraged my determination to discover more.
Please do bear in mind that this book is not a light read. You will require a lot of time and patience to enable you to read this book. Unless you are an absolute genius (unlike me!), then the vast amount of ever-changing names and titles within 17th century Europe will simply overwhelm you! I found that I had to keep flicking back and forth to the beginning and end of the book, where a useful family tree quickly reminded me who’s-who in Louis XIV’s world.
Having said that, I will say that ‘Love and Louis XIV’ is an absolutely incredible book! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as Fraser brought the colourful characters of the women vividly to life. I began to feel that I had gotten to know these women personally, as Fraser was exceptional at highlighting not only their flamboyant lifestyles, achievements and legacies, but also their concerns and inadequacies.
Their lives had drawn light onto the difficulties and restrictions French aristocratic women faced during the 17th century. Nearly all the women featured in Fraser’s book had to contend with the daunting prospect of marriage and motherhood, or the confined life of a convent. The majority of Louis’ female associates struggled to meet what was expected of them, despite their elevated status. Sexuality, motherhood, education, reputation and duty, were all common issues inflicted upon many of the women Louis encountered.
All in all Fraser succeeds in proving to her readers just how fascinating and influential these women were in Louis’ life. They all impacted upon his personal and public life, whether for better or for worse. They influenced his decision-making, as well as his persona to the outside world. What’s more, these women (especially Athenais and Queen Marie-Therese), left a legacy in the form of their children which were fathered by Louis XIV. It would be these children born to the Sun King, who would go on to influence the future of France – but that is for another book!
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