The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

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The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A gossipy look at the life and times of Louis XIV and probably the best pen-picture of the Palace of Versailles which you'll ever read. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0099528883

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Once I was over the shock of realising that it was over fifty years since The Sun King was published and just about as long since I first read the book, the memories came rushing back and I couldn't wait to settle down to an indulgent read. And it is indulgent: it might look like history or biography, but this is more in the nature of a gossipy conversation with someone who has seen it all, is shocked by nothing and is prepared to tell all she knows with supporting detail.

Nancy Mitford assumes that you'll need no introduction to Louis XIV, who ascended the throne when he was four years old and reigned for well over seventy two years. To put him in context his reign began before Charles I was executed in Whitehall, lasted through the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, the reigns of Charles I, James II, William III and into the beginning of the reign of Queen Anne. He bridged the gap between the middle ages and the early modern era.

He was, of course, a believer in the divine right of kings, perpetuating and strengthening the absolute monarchical rule which would hold sway until the French Revolution, almost three-quarters of a century after Louis' death. He's best remembered for moving the seat of government from Paris to the Palace of Versailles, which he enlarged from the original hunting lodge into the building which you can visit today.

The Sun King is the story of Louis, of Versailles and the people who lived and had their being there. It's the story of the private lives – which is what Mitford does best - and how those lives impacted on the government of France. There's a vivid sense of the power of the monarch, but also of the man behind the power, with his mistresses and bastards. When I first read The Sun King it was not long after I'd studied the subject quite extensively and it proved to be a wonderful fleshing out of those facts which other historians hinted at, but never quite mentioned.

Without the benefit of prior knowledge the book is not quite so easy to follow if your intention is to emerge at the end with your Montespans distinguished from your Maintenons and the Dauphins lined up in good order along with their wives, mistresses and assorted vices. There will be books better able to provide you with the information in a digestible form. If, however, you are prepared to go with the flow, to allow the details to sort themselves out then you will be rewarded. For whilst Mitford is brilliant at bringing the people to life she gives us – almost accidentally – what is probably still the best pen-picture of the Palace of Versailles.

I do have one or two quibbles. Mitford loves the long paragraph. There is, for instance, one which begins on page fifteen and ends on page eighteen and it does make reading more difficult, less of a pleasure. I felt too the lack of pictures or plans of Versailles to illustrate the changes which Louis made. In the event I had to resort to foraging in our bookshelves or Googling, but this point is me being picky.

For something from the same period we can recommend William and Mary: Heroes of the Glorious Revolution by John Van der Kiste.

Buy The Sun King by Nancy Mitford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sun King by Nancy Mitford at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Sun King by Nancy Mitford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sun King by Nancy Mitford at Amazon.com.

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