The Great Society

At the Court of Versailles

by Gilette Ziegler
Dutton, 402 pp., $7.95

Louis XIV
Louis XIV; drawing by David Levine

Life at the French court between 1660 and the Revolution is a subject that never seems to pall. Since Louis XIV’s day there have been many changes in the standards by which public opinion judges morals and politics. Even before the Revolution the behavior of high society in France (and for that matter elsewhere too) provoked widespread indignation and ridicule. It has often done so since. From that day to this, however, in many countries, there have always been sections of the public who have found the subject engrossing reading. It seems to present the same kind of attractions as do the careers of movie stars to less instructed audiences. The modern writer who describes aristocratic life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries more often than not portrays his principal characters as futile and irresponsible. This does not, however, diminish the glamor which attaches to them because they were rich, elegant, self-assured, and sophisticated. Reading about them clearly satisfies a psychological need (the nature of which it would be interesting to investigate) in certain quarters of present-day affluent societies.

We are now presented with two new books that cater to this need. One of them, by Nancy Mitford, purports to give an account of the principal events of the reign of Louis XIV and is embellished by magnificent illustrations. The other, by Gilette Ziegler, is a collection of extracts from contemporary writings of the same period. The topics these two writers have chosen to discuss are so often the same that (had the authors’ approach been such as to lend itself to this kind of treatment) the two books, without a great deal of alteration, could have been issued together as a text with supporting documents.

Miss Mitford calls her book The Sun King but this choice of a title is not so happy as some of her previous choices. “The Pursuit of Love at Louis XIV’s Court” would have served her purpose better, for the book, though not exclusively, is primarily concerned with the love affairs of the King and his courtiers. Miss Mitford describes these affairs with her usual grace and wit, and they will provide two or three hours’ excellent entertainment for anyone who wants to be amused without intellectual effort, and who has not heard it all before. Many people, however, will have heard it all before, even if rarely in so agreeable a way or with such splendid visual aids. Notwithstanding the skill which Miss Mitford employs to bring a person or an episode to life, the picture which she draws of Louis XIV’s Court is a very hackneyed one.

LOUIS XIV IN LOVE is much less interesting than Voltaire in love, because Voltaire was a man of genius and Louis XIV an ordinary type. Miss Mitford in one place describes him as a “strange character,” but nothing that she says about him leads one to…

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