An earlier biographer of Philippe d’Orléans began his book by quoting Balzac’s master criminal, Vautrin. There were, he wrote, two kinds of history. There was the lying, official history that is taught in schools. And there was secret history, the shameful history which reveals the true causes of events, that is to say, ‘personal feelings and private hatreds’. Philippe d’Orléans was clearly a subject for the second kind of history. An English biographer, W H Lewis, entitled his book The Scandalous Regent, and from the beginning claimed that as his subject stood self-advertised as one of the leading rakes of the eighteenth century, he had made no effort to ‘soft-pedal’ or excuse his debauchery. Most historians explain that when Louis XIV died, his successor was a five-year-old orphan. Therefore the first prince of the blood, the deceased monarch’s nephew Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, became Regent of the kingdom. Then they invariably go on to speak of the Regent’s laziness, his lack of moral sense and his liking for dissolute pleasures in the company of fellow debauchees.
Christine Pevitt adopts a different approach. She begins with herself and her obsession with Philippe d’Orléans, ‘a person long dead’. His portraits have spoken to her: ‘try to fathom me’, they have said. She describes her pursuit, beginning with the No. 52 bus that stopped outside her lodgings in Paris