A lavish but sluggish life of the Sun King (1638–1715) by architectural historian and biographer Dunlop (Marie-Antoinette, not reviewed).
Dunlop begins by asserting that Louis was “one of the greatest characters who have played an important role on the stage of French history,” but he unfortunately expends more energy describing the scenery than either the players or the plot. His principal thesis is that Louis throughout his life indulged two passions—building and warfare. There are no novelties of narrative here: the first chapter contains an account of Louis’ birth; the last, a description of his death. In the intervening pages are very detailed (and often striking) accounts of his education, coronation (he was anointed with oil said to have been “brought by a dove from Heaven”), marriage, lovers (many of whom, quips Dunlop, subsequently exchanged “Louis’ bed for a cell in a nunnery”), intrigues, battles, construction projects, religious struggles, and medical problems (including an explicit account of the surgery to remove an anal fistula). The story fails to engage, however, because Dunlop has not found a swift narrative horse to carry the burden of the massive detail he has accumulated. Much of it is fascinating (e.g., the winter of 1708–09 was so cold that communion wine froze in the chalices), but it is more often decorative than propulsive. A further impediment arises from the decision to have no endnotes, forcing Dunlop to include in the text much peripheral information—e.g., preceding his account of Louis’ death is a long, dull paragraph on source material. Another dubious decision was to leave untranslated many of the French quotations. Dunlop is most interested in the remarkable architecture of the period, and his accounts of the construction of Versailles, the Louvre, and other structures bristle with confidence and competence. Describing the chapel at Versailles, he writes: “The bas-reliefs of the arcading on the ground floor, seen from the tribunes, give a delicate, brocade-like texture to the stone.”
Rich in detail, plodding in pace. (24 pages b&w photos)