19 November 2015

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

Summary from Goodreads:
The Sun King is a dazzling double portrait of Louis XIV and Versailles, the opulent court from which he ruled. With characteristic élan, Nancy Mitford reconstructs the daily life of king and courtiers during France’s golden age, offering vivid sketches of the architects, artists, and gardeners responsible for the creation of the most magnificent palace Europe had yet seen. Mitford lays bare the complex and deadly intrigues in the stateroom and the no less high-stakes power struggles in the bedroom. At the center of it all is Louis XIV himself, the demanding, mercurial, but remarkably resilient sovereign who guided France through nearly three quarters of the Grand Siècle.

Brimming with sumptuous detail and delicious bons mots, and written in a witty, conversational style, The Sun King restores a distant glittering century to vibrant life.

Nancy Mitford's biography of King Louis XIV during his years of building and living at Versailles is a book I bought for the cover. Bravo, New York Review of Books Classics.

This is a slim, under-200 page history/biography of the French King Louis XIV, the Sun King, from the time he starts the transformation of his father's old hunting lodge at Versailles, in approximately 1661, to his death September 1, 1715.  Along the way we learn about his wife, his brother, his brother's wives, his official mistress, his other mistresses (including the one he likely eventually married), his son, his son's wife, his grandson, his illegitimate children, and his great-grandsons.  Mitford touches on the weirdness of French court customs.  There are wars, religious persecution, suspicion of witchcraft and devilry, and poisonings (fer shizz, poisonings were a THING in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France).  There's also quibbling over French support of the deposed English king, James II, and his family.  Nancy Mitford does gossip like no one's business.

This was written in the 1960s, with research started in the late 1920s, and some of Mitford's views about Jews or Catholics or Germans (and her usage) reflect a .  It isn't too pervasive but it is good to keep in mind that Mitford was a novelist, not a professional biographer or historian.  There is just one (small) drawback to this new edition of The Sun King - according to the Introduction by Philip Mansel the original edition was a "coffee table" book with photographs of Versailles at the "appropriate moment[s] in the text".  Aside from the fabulous yellow cover, there are no photographs in the NYRB Classics edition.

If you're looking for a gift for a history buff or someone who like more narrative-style non-fiction, The Sun King would be a great choice (and so cheery to look at in the middle of winter).

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

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