In the end, no such eccentricities of composition can detract from Mansel’s thorough success in comprehending not just the world and the age, but the king and the man. Most urgently, he inquires how Louis, a man he sees as in many ways unusually civilised, cultivated, pragmatic and visionary, came to commit both cruelties and stupidities; above all, his revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, depriving Protestants of the right to practise their religion freely in France. Mansel blames this on the king’s obsessive rivalry with Austria for the role of supreme Catholic monarch, as well as the deleterious effects of (near) absolute power on an ageing workaholic surrounded by flatterers. Mansel’s greatest coup is that, though his readers will surely despise Louis when reading of his short-sighted malevolence towards the Huguenots, by the time the allied enemies of France are storming towards the gates of Paris we are somehow inclined, despite everything, to sympathise with the old monster.
Mansel is master of the well-chosen anecdote and of the pithy summary. Interesting details sit comfortably within the big picture that he portrays. Sometimes the links between sentences and paragraphs are unclear, and the chronology within chapters can be jumpy. The suggestion that Louis XIV was “exceptionally considerate to women” will certainly raise some eyebrows. But this is overall a scholarly, readable and impressively wide-ranging account of the longest reign in history.
Philip Mansel’s impressive new survey — the best single-volume account of the reign in any language — moves deftly between these fictive and objective worlds. He revels in the fêtes and fireworks, the frescoes and tapestries, that glorified Louis’s rule. But he is never blind to Louis’s failings and absurdities, and clearly delineates how the “absolute monarch” was never as absolute as he wished the world to think...Mansel brings this teeming, sybaritic, ultra-competitive Versailles vividly to life: the elaborate etiquette that turned daily events such as the king’s rising and going to bed into quasi-religious rituals; the panoply that attended the king’s twice-weekly hunts; the extravagant diplomatic receptions — including one from the Ottoman Sultan in 1669 that gave the French their taste for drinking coffee.
There is no point holding a book to task for only doing what it sets out to do — this is a royal biography and not a history of 17th-century France — but if there is something missing from this richly detailed account it is a physical sense of that France and the Europe beyond the court and the campaign trains of Louis’s army. While it is true that the horrors of burnt villages and devastated cities are here, with the solitary exception of Paris — ‘a cauldron of combustible institutions’ as Mansel calls it — it is almost as if France and its 19 million people only existed in relation to their king’s demands.
King of the World is a treasure chest of information and, like a treasure chest, it contains a great many valuable things that can be picked out and enjoyed in themselves. But its lack of a sustained narrative and, above all, the absence of psychological insight into the character of Louis himself leave it sadly less than it might have been.
Mansel, whose previous books include The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon, treads the line between the academic and the accessible effectively, explaining the context of the French monarchy, diplomacy, medicine, Catholicism, queenship, fashion and art. He devotes three chapters to the construction of Versailles, which was far more than simply a mausoleum for Louis’ ego; it was a place of such splendour and renown that it enhanced French international prestige. As the author reminds us, Louis’ subjects sometimes referred to him as “Louis le Grand”, but that sobriquet has not endured. In 1659, when the reign was still young, Mazarin told Louis: “God has established kings to watch over the good of others and the security and peace of his subjects.” In that regard, the Sun King emerges as a fascinating failure.