Book Review: "Love and Louis XIV" by Antonia Fraser
Take a deep dive into Women's History Month with a unique book review from Mary Anne Ellis. While the story does revolve around Louis XIV, Antonia Fraser explores how the women in his life shaped him into the "The Sun King" in Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King.
Keep reading to hear the full review from Mary Anne Ellis.
Louis the Fourteenth of France was one of those larger than life rulers; even the average person on the street who may have never read much European history probably has a mental image of "The Sun King" based on sources like the popular television series Versailles or movies that vary in historical accuracy (such as every version of The Man in the Iron Mask ever made).
Louis was definitely the center of his own world, but Fraser contends that the man he became was heavily influenced by the women in his life.
According to Fraser, the first and most important female influencer for Louis was his mother, Anne of Austria. In a way, he was her miracle baby. She had suffered various obstetrical difficulties and feared that she was barren, which would have been grounds for annulling her marriage; when she finally bore the long-awaited son who would become Dauphin and then King of France, she was 37. This gave Anne a significant position as a royal mother and from the beginning, Louis had nicknames such as Dieudonné: God given.
He was exceptionally close to his mother in a time when court protocol frequently distanced children from their parents. This gave her the opportunity to instill in him a strong sense of his own position in life, the dignity and royal behavior that would be expected from the King of France. An exceptionally beautiful and charming child, Louis received admiring attention wherever he went. Small wonder that when he became King at the age of four years and eight months, his sense of self-worth was already firmly entrenched and the man who became Le Roi Soleil, the sun about which the court and the nation revolved, had absorbed this attitude practically by osmosis from long hours spent with his mother.
Naturally, a man in the King's position could not marry just anyone, though Louis did enjoy an idyllic flirtation with Marie Mancini, one of the nieces of Cardinal Mazarin. The relationship was serious enough to alarm his mother and is even referenced in the play Cyrano de Bergerac when Cyrano visits Roxanne and regales her with the court gossip:
"Thursday—Mancini, Queen of France! (almost!)"
In the end, Louis did his duty and made a power match with the Infanta of Spain, Maria Teresa—who, not surprisingly, was his mother's first choice of a bride for him. The marriage began well enough; Louis has been well-trained in good manners and, if not madly in love with his new wife, treated her with kindness and civility.
Later, during the period of the King's numerous affairs with mistresses, such as Louise de la Valliere, his mother had a strong ally in her daughter-in-law, both of whom were pious women and sought to impress on Louis that he was endangering his soul by leading an immoral life. The immoral life certainly did not cease, but Louis' conscience about his lifestyle was never quite easy, due to the exhortations of his mother and his wife. But when Maria Teresa died, he was heard to observe: "This is the first trouble she has ever given me"—a self-centered observation but also a surprisingly tender epitaph for a woman who had been a marriage of convenience.
A final strong influence on the King was one of his female friends, Madame de Maintenon. Theirs was a complicated relationship: she was, like so many of the women in Louis' life, deeply pious, but found her standards for a moral lifestyle were difficult to maintain in the world of the decadent French court. She did eventually become his mistress but according to Fraser's analysis of the situation, there is strong evidence that he later married her in secret.
After all, everyone expected the King to marry again after the Spanish princess died, but this time the aging monarch had a friendly relationship and one whose intelligence, common sense, and religious convictions he respected. Even though he had little use for women who involved themselves in politics (his own mother being the exception to this rule), he frequently sought Maintenon's advice on court and family matters as well as female education. With the King's assistance, Maintenon founded St. Cyr, a school for impoverished young noblewomen. In a time when education for women was not considered very important, Louis' support of this school speaks volumes about the degree of Madame de Maintenon's influence over him.
From Louis XIV's birth to the end of his life, the reader can follow the long trail of feminine influence that Fraser establishes and, as she points out, the women who came in contact with The Sun King were seldom victimized in the way we see in so many royal relationships. Louis was not Henry VIII and "with Louis there are no stories of crude abductions, violations, unwilling maidens...it may be cynical to suggest that there were many worse options in the life of a seventeenth-century woman of a certain class than to be the mistress of Louis XIV, but it is also realistic."
He was known to have treated his former mistresses well—"the mistresses who abandoned the court were not compelled to do so"—and though he could be ruthless at times in the pursuit of his own desires and comforts, this trait was balanced by a sense that it is beneath a King's dignity to behave like a brute, which is all of a piece with what his mother ingrained in him about proper royal conduct. It is a fitting conclusion that "when Louis XIV chose the sun as his symbol...one of the declared attributes of the sun was 'the light which it shines on those other starts that which surround it like a court.' And those stars in their turn, the women in his life, lit up the court of the Sun King."
For anyone with an interest in women's history, this makes a fascinating read. Check out Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King from any JCLC member, including all Birmingham Public Library locations.
By Mary Anne Ellis | Librarian Ⅰ, Southern History Department