Altogether at ease with the mores of the ancien régime, Fraser (Marie Antoinette, 2001, etc.) eschews a detailed biography of Louis XIV to focus instead on the women who shaped and were shaped by France’s most glorious ruler.
He was king for 72 years, time enough to build Versailles, wage numerous, mostly unsuccessful, wars and accumulate a rich history with the opposite sex. Louis’s mother, Queen Anne, gave birth at 36—a then-astoundingly late stage in life for pregnancy—lending an immediate air of the miraculous to the future monarch. Anne established an unusually close relationship with her son, who never entirely erased from his mind her mixture of beauty and piety as a template of female perfection. Louis abandoned his teenage liaison with the unsuitable Marie Mancini to marry Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa. As Queen Marie-Thérèse, she accommodated two important mistresses, Louise de La Vallière and the Marquise de Montespan, and drew from Louis the final tribute that she gave him no trouble except by dying. After Marie-Thérèse, he secretly married Madame de Maintenon, whose demeanor was remarkably like that of his mother. Fraser paints each of these women in full and offers sketches of a succession of minor mistresses, one night stands, sisters-in-law (including the hilariously vulgar and bitchy wife of Louis’s homosexual brother), princesses and even an exiled foreign queen, all of whom engaged the king’s genuine interest. To help keep track of this large cast, the profusion of changing titles and the dizzying succession of bastards, the author provides a useful guide to the principal characters. Courtiers meticulously charted the king’s amorous adventures, and Fraser excels at reproducing the hothouse atmosphere in which the monarch’s raised eyebrow might portend a serious change in someone’s fortune. Uncomfortably aware of the Church’s opposition to his notorious love life, Louis fully indulged himself during his heyday before turning in old age to a greater concern for his salvation.
An acutely sensitive group portrait of the women who basked in the Sun King’s reflected glory.