We’ve all read historical fiction set at the French court, usually at the court of Louis XIV, late in his reign when he was the Sun King, or the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The main focus of these novels is the decadence, the opulence that led to the fall of the French monarchy and the Revolution. But what if the decadence, the opulence, started before Louis XIV, and he actually attempted to stop the rot, and in so doing launched his absolute monarchy?
That is the central question of Before Versailles, by Katherine Koen. Covering four months of 1661, we see the young king begin to consolidate his power after the death of his beloved mentor (and wielder of untold power behind the scenes), Cardinal Mazarin. We see Louis overcome his attraction to his new sister-in-law, cope with a threat to his legitimacy, take his first mistress, and arrest the man who would be the new power behind the throne.
Throughout the book, we see that the decadence that the French court became famous (and reviled) for, was established long before the Sun King, before he was even born, when Cardinal Richelieu jockeyed Queen Anne for the power of the throne and then Cardinal Mazarin cemented favors with diamonds and the court vied for title of most extravagant, when they weren’t fighting to the death in endless civil wars.
Louis XIV merely continued what had come before him. Ms. Koen hints at the absolute monarchy Louis established. When he died, after 72 years of absolute power, there was no one with the ability to control his kingdom with the same iron control. Even in Before Versailles, we see the absolute poverty of the French peasants, contrasted with the absolute wealth of court. If that contrast was stark in the early days of Louis’ reign, it was dire by the end of it.
I also wonder how history might have been different if most of his direct heirs had not died during his lifetime. From Wikipedia:
Upon his death just days before his seventy-seventh birthday, Louis was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV. All his intermediate heirs—his son Louis, le Grand Dauphin; the Dauphin’s eldest son Louis, duc de Bourgogne; and Bourgogne’s eldest son and his second eldest son, Louis, duc de Bretagne (the older brothers of the future Louis XV)—predeceased him.
What if the new king of France had been old enough to have actually been trained to rule? What would have been different? An interesting what-if.
I highly recommend Before Versailles. Packed full of detail without seeming pedantic, it provides enough glimpses of the future to answer the question of what happens after the book is over, and yet the plot keeps moving along without bogging down in all the detail. I could see the palaces through the descriptions. My only complaint is that there was no map of the palace of Fontainebleau or its environs or grounds. Even just a couple general sketches would have gone a long way towards helping me place the action. Overall, an excellent book. I hope Ms. Koen writes more about the early years of Louis XIV’s reign.
Five out of five stars.
- The Sun King’s honeymoon hotel. (richelieu-eminencerouge.blogspot.com)