FALSE DAWN: Women in the Age of the Sun King by Louis Auchincloss

FALSE DAWN: Women in the Age of the Sun King

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Chatty, idiosyncratic profiles of some prominent 18th-century women--in whom Auchincloss sees a ""female serf-assertion"" not matched again until the 20th century. As pursued here, it's a tortuous, equivocal claim. Thus, Louis XIV's maiden cousin, Mademoiselle, may have made herself ridiculous by her infatuation for a younger scamp, but she did stick up for herself--and perhaps the wars of the Fronde were as ""silly"" as they sound in her journal. Madame de SÉvignÉ may have been the Sun King's staunchest supporter, ""even with all his wars and persecutions,"" but she never refused ""her sympathy to friends who fell in royal disfavor."" With Mary of Orange, who refused to reign without her beloved husband William as co-sovereign, and helped him ""embroil her country in a costly war,"" Auchincloss can only express ""disappointment."" (As to the War of the Spanish Succession itself, ""we in America need not feel superior. We have only to remember Vietnam."") Then there is the opinionated Duchess of Marlborough, the century's ""most exasperating"" woman; her mousey cousin Abigail, who as Lady Masham displaced Sarah in Queen Anne's favor (whom Auchincloss too finds elusive, baffling); and Queen Anne, who in his not-unpersuasive view had ""a certain stubbornness. . . that went with her lack of imagination and intense self-absorption."" (Was she to blame for reigning-in Marlborough and the Tories, for making peace on less-than-optimum terms? ""Too decisive a victory might have done very strange things to that balance of power British statesmen were already beginning to talk about."") The most interesting of the female power-wielders are Madame de Maintenon, Louis' discreet mistress and mate, and the Princesse des Ursins, strategically situated as confidante to the Spanish throne. ""Both women had the social discipline of an earlier time; their manners pleased a monarch who was becoming disgusted with the laxity of the young."" And so, briefly, they wielded some joint influence. For a feminist perspective on the 17th century with dash and substance, see rather Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel (below): this is intermittently diverting and occasionally suggestive, at best.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1984
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday