Kelly's Reviews > The Sun King

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford
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it was ok
bookshelves: 1500-1700, great-and-terrible-men, history, tres-francais

After reading two of Nancy Mitford’s historical biographies, I can say that I have at the very least learned exactly who Nancy likes to invite to her parties. Ladies should be elegant, witty, memorable, beautiful if at all possible, and at the very least aware that one must dress if not. They should be wise in the ways of men, conform to religious standards only as much as necessary to not end up on the front page, and above all be disinclined to fall into the vapors. Men are required to be elegant, witty, memorable, and handsome if at all possible, or dressed in a way that falls in to some sort of amusing stereotype if not (the crusty sailor, the coarse soldier, the court jester). Morality is unnecessary for either sex, however, the ability to both command a drawing room and a country (or a lover) is highly prized. Nancy Mitford likes clever managers of people and situations. She gives the approving nod to whichever characters can carry off their part with style and make the least trouble for everyone while still doing quite well for themselves. It is possible to tell which characters she is truly attached to because she allows them to have emotion and for people around them to properly grieve at their passing, whereas unworthy characters get “quite what they deserve."

This makes her treatment of Louis somewhat ambiguous. It is easy to tell that she would like to approve of him. He is, after all, the creator of that shining world of Versailles, which Nancy clearly considers to be the closest thing the nobility have ever created to heaven. She lovingly traces its origins through to its full flowering late in his reign, sometimes indeed giving the impression that if the building had had more love affairs and fought more wars, she would have written a history of the walls of Versailles itself. But Nancy’s interest is for “personalities,” as her stand-in character in Love in a Cold Climate always said. Thus Louis “l’etat c’est moi,” is the closest thing she can come to as a subject. This leads her to make the best case for him she can. His brilliance in creating Versailles is emphasized. The system required nobles to be at court and to bankrupt themselves trying to dress appropriately and kept everyone so busy with a constant round of parties that they could never look up to realize that they were not exercising any real power at all. Those few who did look up were sold offices at exorbitant prices, offices which were still dependent on the king and centered on the court. His mastery of etiquette, amazing self-control in all situations, and his ability to love strongly in select cases are all praised and described in detail. Louis is also defended against charges that he remained terrified of his subjects all of his life because of the Fronde (though I think there is an argument to be made that that is why he wanted all his nobles where he could see them at Versailles). She likewise feels the need to spend time discrediting paintings which make him look “quite Jewish” (which seems to mean a big nose and wrinkled all over- an offhand icky anti-Semitic reference typical of many writers of the early 20th century British ruling class).. instead telling of busts and descriptions that make him sound rather handsome when young. There’s a long section at the end detailing the trials of the War of the Spanish Succession and Louis’ courage in fighting on when everything seemed to be against him. She clearly approves of Phillip V enough to think that it was worth fighting for his throne.

The problem is that there are just too many factors that she doesn’t like. She faults Louis for not being witty enough. She faults his choice of boring companions at many points in his life. She does not like the children he chooses to love (especially the unworthy Duc du Maine), and she hates two out of his three principal mistresses. She tells stories of his cruelty (his lack of sympathy for any kind of illness is a standout example. He made many ill people travel when they were in no condition to. This included heavily pregnant women who he made travel with the court late in their term. A few lost their babies in the process), his hardness, and his frightening demeanor (though you can tell she sort of secretly approves of that- kings are God’s representatives after all). She can’t get over how stupid he is to keep stupid King James at his court and then shelter the Old Pretender after that, or his obsession with destroying Holland. She’s endlessly bored with his ventures into religion. It's telling the only joy she seems to take in that part of the story is the bits where Louis punishes courtiers he catches laughing in church. Princely authority asserted. Always hot.

Yet despite these efforts to sketch out a Louis that can worthily hold the center, she never really focuses the camera on him for any length of time. As I mentioned, it is clear that Louis is the choice of subject by default. He is simply a pivot point and a story structure, providing beginning, middle, end, and the plot points that motivate the actions of others. Stella Tillyard (whose own work as a historian I adore), in her introduction to the book, points out that the biography is truly the story of Louis’ three principal mistresses, whose reigns separate out the stages of his life. Louise de la Valliere when he was young, Madame de Montespan in his prime, and Madame de Maintenon in his late middle age and twilight years. I think that this is true insofar as we spend much more time following these women and the atmosphere of the court that they create (Queens seem to never count in these biographies) than Louis himself. Again, though, the problem is she only likes one of them, Madame de Montespan. She addresses her by her first name, and highlights her period as the most amusing, fun-filled part of the King’s life. Yet again, though, even she disappoints her by falling from favor, consulting the dark arts, and then turning bitter and angry and, biggest crime of all, uninteresting, in the last years of her life. Louise is whiny and insipid, a stereotype of a wilting flower. Madame de Maintenon is the symbol of Louis turning to religion. You can tell Nancy sees this as the horridly boring part of his life which ruined all the fun of Versailles. (For illustration's sake, its worth pointing out that her ultimate salute of her beloved Pompadour is to declare that after her death "a great dullness" settled over Versailles.)

I agree with Tillyard that Mitford sees the women as her way into this bit of history. However, I also think that unlike with La Pompadour, she could never latch onto someone’s story for long enough to create a sense of a coherent world. She had to jump from place to place and person to person to keep the stories she liked center stage. This created a very confusing narrative that skipped back and forth in time, that zigzagged back and forth across the court amongst crowds of indistinguishable duchesses and princesses. She set up too many obligations for herself. I think that is probably what I’m trying to say. She said this book is about Louis, so she has to do him. She’s clearly made the choice to focus on the mistresses, so now she’s got to fill out their story. She likes gossip and scandal, so she wants to tell us every juicy story she knows no matter where it leads. And in the end, let us not forget her commitment to her dream castle of Versailles and describing its odyssey. This ended up in a confused place where peoples’ narratives got really and fully fleshed out in one part of the book, only to have their deaths or later doings summed up in two sentences later (even Madame de Montespan got this treatment) as an afterthought. The king appears strongly at the beginning and disappears for long stretches, only poking his head in when necessary. The mistresses give place to the courtiers they fight with, and some fascinating B plot men (the Prince de Conti, the Grand Conde) fade into the background and then pop back up again at points when the story should not be about them.

I think she would have done better to publish this as a collection of individual scandals from Versailles. The King didn't need to be here, for the most part. The supporting cast is large enough to have a story all their own, and they are clearly what fills in the background and makes Versailles the place that she loves. The King remains the constant, the story is how you revolve around him and work your way closer. But it is clear that Louis is far from her favorite thing about this time period. It is clear when we meet someone that she likes, and they are all over Versailles. But because of her obligations to the Sun King she can’t spend the time she would like to with them. I wish she’d just been honest about that and written a different book. As it is, this simply can’t compare to her biography of Pompadour. She deprived herself of the things she loved, which ruled Pompadour’s story, and gave herself a list of obligations instead. Page turning history, which is the only reason to read Mitford in preference to more scholarly efforts, is not made that way. I was by turns bored, unimpressed, all too fleetingly amused, and then confused, then the whole cycle started again. More Mitford charm in her study of Voltaire, I hope. That’s next.
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Reading Progress

November 1, 2011 – Shelved
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: 1500-1700
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: great-and-terrible-men
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: history
November 1, 2011 – Shelved as: tres-francais
Started Reading
June 1, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Charming and insightful review. Kelly, I think you're one of my favourite reviewers here.

Kelly Well thank you Whitaker! That means a lot coming from such a smart reviewer like you.

Mitford has a wonderful voice as a writer. She really is worth the read, even if this isn't necessarily the best place to start. She's one of those authors who I can almost hear and whose surroundings I feel like I can almost see when I'm reading. That can be annoying in other authors but she had such an interesting life herself that it isn't with her.

message 3: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Kelly wrote: "Mitford has a wonderful voice as a writer."

Well, I'd never considered reading her before, but now I think I must. :-)

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Jun 21, 2012 08:31AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly Oh I'm so glad! If you're interested in her fiction I recommend going with the Pursuit of Love as a starter. If you're interested in the bios, I definitely would recommend Pompadour!

Elizabeth, yeah, it's unfortunate that she also seems to have caught that anti-Semitic thing in the air that seems apparently infected a lot of early 20th century upper class British writers. I've seen it in so many of them. It's not a prevalent thing in this one, it's just one or two offhand remarks (there isn't a lot of occasion to remark on Jews at Versailles). I don't want to put you off all her biographies though. This one isn't the best organized thing in the world, but I do still recommend the Pompadour biography! Her voice makes me laugh in that one. I haven't tried the one on Voltaire yet but it also looks good.

Kelly No of course. These things have to be recognized, but I think you're right that it's wrong to perceive their conceptualizations of Others the way that we would process them today. Some of them almost just seem to use it as a descriptive device, with no awareness that there's anything wrong with that. It's a jarring thing to encounter in otherwise wonderful, nuanced and intelligent books, for sure. Surprising to find such a large thing passed over when so many other things are explored so thoughtfully.

message 6: by Kelly (last edited Dec 28, 2013 07:22AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kelly What a nice comment, Ray. Thank you for your compliments. I will say that I think I feel overall more positive about Mitford's writing than you do- I don't go to her to read for serious, scholarly history and in-depth facts. I really do like her narrative approach and her tone makes me laugh- I think she has the ability to make the past come alive and seem close to us in a way that a lot of "Serious Historians" I've read can't touch. She does a great job creating vivid characters and anecdotal scenes- so I think I must disagree with you there. Though I will say she does it better in her other biography, Madame Pompadour, than she does here.

However, I do agree with the criticism that her approach is slanted, her research is not evident (that would interfere with the readability aspect, which I think is more her goal- I think of it as stories told around the fireside) and her treatment of her main character really really just did not work here. She just needed to write something different. She didn't really want to write about Louis, I think.

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