Portrait of the evolution of French court life and politics at Versailles.
British scholar Spawforth (Ancient History/Newcastle Univ.; The Complete Greek Temples, 2006, etc.) details the construction, restoration and daily intrigues at the royal palace—the opulent official residence and center of government—from the reign of Louis XIV to Louis XVI, the last kings of France. From 1682, when Louis XIV moved his then Paris-based court 12 miles west to the sleepy village of Versailles, until 1789, when thousands rose in protest against the flagrant excesses of the monarchy, the royal palace stood as a symbol of the grandeur and disgrace of France. About the public disaffection with aristocrats in advance of the French Revolution, the author writes, “Did Louis XVI need two thousand horses when Louis XIV had managed with seven hundred?” Drawing on memoirs, diaries, invoices, architectural plans and holdings from the palace archives, Spawforth elevates Versailles from an upscale tourist attraction to a breathing monument with a spellbinding flesh-and-blood history. Among other fascinating tidbits, readers learn that the monarchy routinely sold menial household jobs to poor families who coveted the social cachet of the palace. Positions such as royal chimney sweep, table clearer, clock winder and bearer of the king’s chamber pot were purchased by status-conscious commoners as investments and passed from father to son for generations. In a fast-paced narrative, the author discusses the importance of dance, haute cuisine, costume balls and couture at Versailles, noting that clothes were a major expense of court life. In addition to dozens of wardrobe valets and 13 dressers whose sole duty was to pass Louis XIV his cane, cloak and gloves, the king kept a lacemaker at the ready for mending. The gross disparities between the nobles at Versailles and the suffering masses in France in the 1780s made inevitable, Spawforth asserts, the gruesome end for Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI.
Arch, authoritative and richly descriptive.