The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

King Louis XIV was born in 1638 and became king of France in 1643 at age five. He remained king until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest reign in history for any European monarch. Beginning in 1682 and for about the last 32 years of Louis’s reign, the Palace of Versailles (about twelve miles from Paris) was the seat of French government and the home of the king, his family and the French court.

Louis XIV himself built the Palace of Versailles, starting with a small chateau with a moat, into the most lavish palace in Europe. It remained the seat of French government for over a hundred years, until the beginning of the French Revolution. Today it still stands as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Louis XIV was anointed by God, or so he believed (and so did everybody else). He was God’s representative on earth. People stood in awe of him; even his own children trembled in his presence. He was a tyrant when he needed to be, but he also had a more human side. He loved and hated in equal measure.

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford is an account of King Louis XIV and his life in the Palace of Versailles, his family and associates, his enemies, his weaknesses, his foibles, his hunting and eating habits, his mistresses, his children (legitimate and otherwise), his wars, and his political successes and failures. He was called the Sun King because he chose the sun as his personal symbol.

The Palace of Versailles was, at any given moment, home to hundreds if not thousands of courtiers, servants, hangers-on, members of the royal family and others. People were always seeking the gain the King’s favor. Most of the jobs in the palace, down to the most menial, were held by members of one family, from generation to generation. These positions were lucrative and much desired.

Life wasn’t always wonderful for the people living at the Palace of Versailles. Many people died young. Infant mortality rates were high. The King himself fathered seventeen children; ten of them died in infancy. Doctors were, at best, barely capable and many were incompetent. No matter what the illness, doctors “bled” the patient, which proved to be largely ineffective. People died of “stone” (kidney or gall). Smallpox was a constant threat, even among the highborn. The king himself had surgery for an anal fistula, without, of course, any anesthetic. He survived it, without complaint.

No matter what was happening in their lives, no matter what tragedy befell them, these lords and ladies loved to go out hunting. Pity the poor stags and other animals that lived in the woods nearby.

The Sun King is mostly fascinating reading. The narrative bogs down, in my estimation, when the focus is on politics and the political rivals of the king. It is sometimes hard to keep all the names straight because different people are referred to at different times by different names. There are so many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and enemies of the king (some with unpronounceable and forgettable names) that we don’t always know who’s who, no matter how carefully we’re reading. For example, Mme. de Montespan (sometimes referred to as Athenais) is the King’s longtime mistress. Then the King marries Mme. de Maintenon. Montespan and Maintenon are both prominent characters in the King’s life and their names are almost interchangeable. Such is history.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

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