The bibliography of Philip Mansel’s new life of Louis XIV is as impressive as I expected it to be. It lists every kind of history and biography, as well as unpublished manuscripts, newspapers of the period and a great many of the famously entertaining letters and diaries of France’s ‘Grand Siècle’. All of this speaks to the wealth of research and experience that Mansel brings to this book. For almost four decades, he has informed and captivated countless readers with his histories of life and ritual at the court of France.
But biography is different. It demands a sustained narrative, if not chronological then at least crystal clear, and a coherent analysis of character. Mansel is not new to the genre, as his life of the Prince de Ligne, published in 2003, attests. This cosmopolitan 18th-century prince, who lived a life of near-constant pleasure and produced some diverting memoirs as a result, was essentially a court observer, motivated by a lifelong search for amusement. Of such a man it is enough to relate where he went, whom he saw and what he thought of it all.
The Sun King is another kind of subject altogether. Born in 1638 in a time of troubles, on the run for half his boyhood, he was at first uncertain of his place and his powers, but in time became absolutely – and indeed recklessly and dangerously – certain