Duc de Saint-Simon
Duc de Saint-Simon; drawing by David Levine

As far as I know, there has never been a complete translation of Saint-Simon’s Memoirs into the English language, and there probably never will be, unless some American foundation is especially established for that purpose. What publisher would face the uneconomic prospect of bringing out an adequately annotated edition of those hundreds of thousands of words about the court of Louis XIV? What translator would devote the major part of a lifetime to unraveling, then re-raveling, all that racy, knotty, idiosyncratic French, full of unexplained allusions to the details of a vanished world? The most that has been achieved until now has been the quarrying out of certain fragments under such titles as “The Age of Magnificence” or “Saint-Simon at Versailles,” in the hope that the picturesqueness of the anecdotes will make up for the disjointed nature of the text.

Miss Lucy Norton has been rather more ambitious; she has spent several years on the preparation of two large volumes, dedicated to Nancy Mitford and prefaced by Sir Denis Brogan, which attempt to follow through Saint-Simon’s account of the main events from 1691 to the death of the King in 1715, with the emphasis on political implications rather than on court scandal. On the whole, the result is quite satisfactory. These volumes will give the English-speaking reader some feeling of the extent and ramifications of Saint-Simon’s immense monologue.

If I have a quibble, it is that Miss Norton herself occasionally seems to get lost in the complexities. She does not always eliminate Saint-Simon’s unnecessary reiterations and, unaccountably, she repeats some of the illustrations of Volume I in Volume II. Nor is her translation absolutely impeccable; she may fall into a Gallic turn of phrase or get the meaning slightly wrong. For instance, one is surprised to discover that a gentleman who has been “assassinated” on one occasion dies a natural death some years later, until one remembers that assassiné, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French, can simply mean to be the victim of an assault. However, these are minor matters in comparison with the size of the achievement. We now have a Saint-Simon that the English-speaking reader can browse upon or wander through, with the rich sensation of being back at Versailles under Louis XIV and of living from day to day in that extraordinary human ant-heap or bee-hive. There were only a few workers, but an immense number of buzzing drones surrounding the King Bee, whose very breathing regulated the collective life. Saint-Simon himself was an exceptionally busy, buzzing drone who, from the age of nineteen onward, made daily notes on court life, which he was later to work up, in retirement, into the 2,854 finely written pages of the complete manuscript.

“It has been my chief endeavor to preserve the flow of history,” says Miss Norton in presenting her extracts. But, of course, from the modern point of view, the story hardly flows at all. Saint-Simon proceeds doggedly from year to year, since he is following the ground-plan of Dangeau’s Journal, and he discourses on anything that takes his fancy or arouses his passions, mixing up belly-aches and questions of precedence, military operations and enemas, as if he were reviewing old times for the benefit of some other ex-courtier with whom he was having an interminable after-dinner conversation. Paradoxically, the absorbing interest of his memoirs arises partly from the fact that he himself has little or no concept of history, and therefore does not see his society in any real historical perspective.

History, as it happened, was only just being invented at the beginning of the eighteenth century by young men such as Montesquieu, whereas Saint-Simon, in his theoretical preface entitled Considérations préliminaires, is mainly concerned with the problem of whether or not a Christian has the right to give an uncharitable, if accurate, account of the people he has known. It is true that his pride of rank made him slightly backward-looking since he felt that the aristocracy was no longer allowed to carry out its true function, and it is also true that he looked forward to the day when the Duc de Bourgogne, a more amenable character than his autocratic grandfather, would succeed to the Throne of France. But these were tactical attitudes within the context of his times; he had no strategic view of history; it clearly never occurred to him, as he scurried about Versailles, to wonder whether life had been better organized or more important elsewhere or at other periods, or whether it would change radically in the future. Versailles was the hub of the universe, the all-absorbing moment. There was, on the one hand, the court of Louis XIV, in which every detail was intensely significant and, on the other, the eternal mystery of death into which the most highly placed personalities might be dispatched at any moment by one of the innumerable diseases or accidents that contemporary medicine was quite incapable of dealing with. Life in a glare of light and publicity; death as a constant reminder of the nothingness of this world. Saint-Simon, a passionate gossip and a pious Christian, is equally conscious of the immediate and the Beyond. In his writing, the court of Louis XIV is set against a background of eternity. In this respect his attitude is still medieval, and indeed Versailles in general can be looked upon as the last great display of medievalism before the advent of the modern world. This is partly the reason why the attitudes expressed in the Memoirs seem so peculiar.


Take, for instance, Saint-Simon’s most striking characteristic, his belief in the importance of noble birth. The political pattern in the back of his mind must be the ideal medieval social organization, in which each category of the nation is expected to play its part in the sight of God. The King rules by Divine Right; the aristocracy, in its various degrees, is ranged beneath him to govern his provinces and lead his armies; the merchants and the bankers have their function, while the peasants till the soil. We may all at times regret the passing of this medieval ideal. How restful it would have been if nature had provided man, like the bees and the ants, with a built-in caste system! The curious thing about Saint-Simon is that he retains his belief in the ideal, while adducing fact after fact which directly contradicts it. He goes on assuming that, by taking up the cudgels in connection with this point or that, he will help to stem the tide of decadence and get the various parts of the nation back into their proper eternal functions. He is profoundly worried about the state of France, yet he is quite incapable of analyzing it for what it is, because his intelligence works only on details, not on principles, and he is blind to some of the most obvious points.

His own ducal rank dated back only to the previous reign, and he tells at length how his father became a favorite of Louis XIII and was given advancement through having had the bright idea of standing a fresh horse head to tail by the King’s tired mount, so that Louis could change steeds during the hunt without actually touching the ground. This seems a slender basis on which to establish pride of race. No doubt Saint-Simon père had other qualities which endeared him to his sovereign and explained his meteoric career—reading between the lines, one begins to surmise a number of things—but the son tells the story of the horse with complete conviction, as if ministering to the comfort of the Lord’s Anointed were a sufficient cause of hereditary distinction.

Whether the story of the horse is true or false, one would have expected him to keep it quiet, rather than boast about it. Aristocracy only makes sense, logically, if it is founded on military valor or exceptional ability. In fact, no more than a small proportion of aristocrats could, or can, trace their ancestry back to genuinely great men. In this sense, the aristocracy was largely false even from medieval times. So many titles were due to a pretty face, prowess in the bed-chamber rather than on the field, or the ability to render a humble service deftly, that even in the seventeenth century it should have been obvious that there was no inherent superiority in blue blood. Yet Saint-Simon, in common with most of his contemporaries, accepted the notion implicitly, and it cannot be said to have entirely disappeared in Europe even today.

Not that he is at all starry-eyed in his approach to the aristocracy. On the contrary, he is pitiless in his description of the witlessness, the frivolity, and the immorality of his peers, and the series of grotesques he paints is more extensive even than Proust’s. He can tell a joke against aristocratic snobbishness, like the anecdote about the lady who remarked, after the death of some particularly wicked nobleman, that she was sure God would think twice before damning such a high-born person.

However, this does not prevent him taking birth as an absolute and ordering most of his activity around it. In a court obsessed with precedence and etiquette, he was the specialist, the censor, the defender of doctrinal purity, and much more royalist than the King. He recounts, as one of the great political affairs of his career, the battle he waged to prevent the Princesses of Lorraine, whom he considered as upstarts and pushers, from opting out of the duty of handing round the collection bag at certain church services and thus establishing their superiority over the duchesses. He assembled his fellow dukes in a council of war, encouraged the duchesses to go on strike, and finally obtained an interview with the King, to whom he put his case eloquently and firmly, as a loyal shop-steward might expostulate with his managing director. The King was made to understand how lax he had been to allow such a situation to develop, and he stopped the rot by ordering one of the Princesses of the Blood to hand round the bag and so establish a royal precedent.


Saint-Simon is so obsessed by the importance of the issue and so good at describing the personalities involved and indicating the twists and turns of intrigue that one reads on, enthralled, without being in the least discouraged by the ludicrousness of the theme. After all, when one comes to think of it, a great deal that we consider as important in modern politics is probably just as formal. In all periods, the elaborate ramifications of the psychological superstructure may have a weird beauty of their own, which seems far removed from the materialistic infrastructure.

Saint-Simon, because of his position as an aristocrat in an absolute monarchy, which parked its parasitical upper class in a small area where the pecking-order became the major entertainment, was almost entirely concerned with a superstructure of baroque splendor and irrelevance. And there is no cosmic reason why we should feel guilty about being interested in it. The peacock’s tail is a splendid, baroque irrelevance in nature and it would not exist if God were a good Marxist and took a thrifty, utilitarian view of His responsibilities. Nevertheless it is there, and one can enjoy the spectacle, at the same time as one marvels at its absurdity.

Although the King behaved correctly on this occasion, he himself was actually the worst offender and his conduct was a constant sorrow to Saint-Simon. Not only did Louis XIV rule mainly through bourgeois agents and thus deprive the aristocracy of the active share they might have taken in running the country, he promoted his numerous bastards to the same dignities as the Princes of the Blood, paired them off with other members of the Royal Family, and himself entered into a morganatic marriage with the widow of a not very respectable poet. La veuve Scarron became Mme de Maintenon, was treated unofficially as the Queen of France, and participated actively in affairs of State, since the King developed the habit of interviewing his ministers in her apartments.

Saint-Simon never ceased to deplore these monstrous anomalies, and prided himself on rejecting the advances made to him by the bastards. But the way of the purist was very difficult at Versailles, since the King had helped to turn the place into a genealogist’s nightmare. For instance, for various reasons, Saint-Simon was led to support the King’s nephew, the Duc d’Orléans later the Regent. However, the Duc d’Orléans was married to one of the King’s illegitimate daughters, Mlle de Blois, and Saint-Simon had to side with her, in spite of her tainted birth, because she was the rightful Duchesse d’Orléans. Then, in due course, the daughter of the Duc and Duchesse, Mlle de Valois, reached adolescence and, given the state of play between the various factions at court, it seemed to Saint-Simon that she should marry the Duc de Berry, one of the King’s legitimate grandsons. He therefore campaigned actively in this cause, which eventually triumphed. So the defender of the principle of birth and of Christian marriage was instrumental in uniting a legitimate grandchild of France with a half-illegitimate one, and he is so obsessed with the minutiae of court intrigue as he tells the tale that he does not see what a dubious operation he is engaged upon.

An additional irony of the situation is that he remarks in passing on his inability to understand why the Duc d’Orléans was so apathetic about the brilliant prospect of the marriage and had to be encouraged and prodded by the concerted efforts of Saint-Simon and the Duchesse. The reason, as it turned out, was an incestuous relationship between father and daughter. Moreover, the marriage was a complete disaster and the Duchesse de Berry turned into a wild neurotic, whose peculiarities Saint-Simon carefully catalogues.

Again, this may appear to be no more than frivolous gossip, but I don’t think it is. I see it rather as a kind of allegory of political life; it was, in a sense, the political life of the day. Saint-Simon is obviously telling the truth as he sees it—and he tells it with his usual vividness—because it hardly redounds to his credit, although he appears not to notice this. He had a set of beliefs and he was trying to apply them but, step by step, he was led into situations which reversed the values he was supposed to be upholding. The fact that the beliefs according to which he was operating now seem remote or utterly mistaken does not destroy the significance of the psychological pattern thus created.

I would go so far as to say that he had a genuine political mind of the observant, back-room type but that, from the practical point of view, he was working on hopelessly intractable material. He was much less interested in his own advancement than in watching how power was exercised and occasionally trying to put his oar in. One might even define him chiefly as a voyeur of power. Since Versailles was still in many ways an open court, on the medieval pattern, he could, up to a point, witness the operations of power directly. Louis XIV was one of the last great kings to “perform” in public, so that his appearances were not purely representational as those of later monarchs were to be. Authority and passion rippled openly through the reception rooms at Versailles, in spite of the emphasis on court decorum, and there are many set pieces in the Memoirs which correspond to the power crises—the death of Monseigneur, the first Dauphin, the acceptance of the Throne of Spain on behalf of the King’s grandson, the Duc d’Anjou, the military review at which Mme de Maintenon’s sedan-chair occupied such a scandalously prominent place, etc. On such occasions, Saint-Simon becomes all eyes and his prose tingles with excitement. But he was also indefatigable in his search for knowledge of what went on behind the scenes, and he supplemented the information received from his friends in high places by assiduous interrogation of ladies-in-waiting, chambermaids, and valets.

The disadvantage of having a political mind and at the same time believing in the hereditary principle is that one is almost entirely at the mercy of chance. Louis XIV had a will of his own and was conscientious in the daily performance of his duties, but he wrecked the organic functioning of the hierarchical society (supposing it had ever existed) and disrupted the pattern with his train of bastards and mistresses. Monseigneur, the first Dauphin, was a plump nonentity, whom Saint-Simon wrote off as a complete loss at an early stage, and whose death he actually greeted with glee. Hope was then transferred to the Duc de Bourgogne, the second Dauphin, and it is touching to see to what lengths Saint-Simon will go in his effort to persuade himself that the young man will be a worthy heir. The War of the Spanish Succession sometimes verged on tragi-comedy through the tensions between the Duc de Bourgogne, the titular commander, and the Duc de Vendôme, the actual general, a gifted but profligate descendant of a royal bastard of a previous reign.

Saint-Simon tries hard to side with the Duc de Bourgogne, but he cannot entirely avoid the conclusion that the legitimate royal gentleman was sometimes found to be playing shuttlecock when he should have been concentrating on his military duties. The only really intelligent member of the Royal Family seems to have been the Duc d’Orléans, and he was noted for his vices even among the fast set. The virtuous Saint-Simon had to plead respectfully with him to make him see the error of his ways, but could never rely upon him to carry out the good resolutions that he was sometimes bullied into by dint of argument.

Louis XIV, who believed in the Divine Right of Kings just as much as Saint-Simon did, gave a short definition of this optimistic doctrine in addressing his grandson, the Duc d’Anjou, after the latter had succeeded to the Throne of Spain: “God, who made you king, will enlighten you according to your needs.” God did no such thing; Saint-Simon explains at great length how Spain was, in effect, ruled for years by the chief court lady, the Princesse des Ursins.

One would have thought that, after witnessing this and so many other examples of the vagaries caused by the hereditary principle, Saint-Simon would have wondered about the possibility of finding some other system for the exercise and transmission of power. But no; he appears to have lived on into old age without changing his views. His heirs died before him, as Louis XIV’s had done; his dukedom was doomed to extinction; and the Enlightenment was under way. Yet he had the perseverence to erect this impressive psychological monument which proclaims the inanity of the principles its author was concerned to defend. But it respects the principle of truth to detail, which is the saving grace in literature.

This Issue

July 10, 1969