Title: Love and Louis XIV
Author: Antonia Fraser
Genre: History, Biography
Format: Audio Book (narrated by Julia Franklin)
Release Date:2007 (paperback) 2012 (audio book)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Louis XIV, who called himself the Sun King, was born late in his mother’s life – she was 36 which, for the period, meant she was almost elderly. The first, and therefore most treasured son, his birth was seen as a miracle and from the day he was born his mother – Anne of Austria – doted on him. At the age of five his father, the King of France died, leaving him a “child-king”, with his mother acting as regent. For the next eight years, until he reached the age of majority and could rule in his own right, Anne of Austria raised her son and ruled France in his name. A pious woman, with a strict morale code, she defended his future right to be King and taught him that one day he would rule France as an absolute monarch and the world would be shaped to his desires.
This relationship with his mother was probably the most important relationship in his life and framed how he ruled France and his future relationships women – both his wife, Marie-Therese of Spain, and his mistresses, of which there were many including three significant ones, two of whom he had children with. It is these relationships Antonio Fraser focuses on in her book, which is sub-titled: The Women in the Life of the Sun King.
It’s an interesting approach and means the book isn’t as dry as it could have been because Louis lived a very long life (he died at 76) and, although he built Versailles and was involved in more than one war and episode of political intrigue, for the most part what I found out about his life didn’t interest me that much. He comes across as an intelligent man, ruthless, creative and incredibly fertile – I can’t actually remember how many children, legitimate and otherwise he had. As he got older, despite his early promiscuity, he also became fairly pious.
The women in Louis’ life were much more interesting to me. I am always fascinated to see how strong, intelligent and/or independent women made their mark in a world that was much less open to allowing them to do so. They were seen as property of their fathers and husbands, married off for political gain, and – because of the need to produce a male heir – put their lives at risk with pregnancy after pregnancy, aging early and dying young in many cases. His wife was one of those women, married not for love but for power, who was unhappy all her life and was unable to step outside of her prescribed role. His mistresses were each very different, reflecting times in Louis’ life, from sweet, innocent Louise, who was racked with guilt because of her love for the King, through to Athenais, a sexual woman who pursued the King although she was also married, until finally he met and secretly married Francoise de Maintenon, the governess to his illegitimate children.
This secret marriage was something which did surprise me as Francoise was a few years older and of much lower rank. Everything about Louis up until this point would have suggested he would re-marry for political gain. As he had more than one heir at this point, though, this was not necessary. Still, it would have been perfectly normal for the times and his not doing so put a different light on him and made me see him slightly differently.
How I chose to see him by the end of the book was left to me. Antonia Fraser doesn’t make any judgements but presents the facts rather than opinion. She has a good writing style, one which painted a clear picture in my head. At times, I really could visualise the court at Versailles, which with it’s strict rules of etiquette sounds fascinated and I would like to know more about. This was helpful as, because it was an audiobook, I didn’t have any images to look at (though I did end up doing a bit of googling!). It’s one of the problems I’m coming across as I start listening to audiobooks more and nothing against this book in particular.
Where I wasn’t so sure, and why I didn’t rate the book higher, is that some of these facts don’t seem to be backed up or seem to be reached by leaps which may make perfect sense when you have a broader knowledge of the subject, as I’m sure Antonia Fraser does, but made me wonder how a particular conclusion was reached. I’m a facts and figures kind of girl with things like this and I like to know where information has come from. If I had been reading the book it might have been different as I would have been able to look at footnotes.
The other reason I didn’t rate it higher is that there were actually some problems with the audio. In a couple of places the narrator tripped over her words and in others lost the flow and I found I had to rewind to understand what had been said. It put me off a bit and made my listening less enjoyable.
Overall though I did enjoy it. I’ve read other Antonia Fraser books and will no doubt read more. However, it will be the written vs. heard word.