LYNN NEARY, host:
Louis the XIV ruled France from 1643 to 1715. That's more than 70 years. Still, how did he have the time to invade the Spanish Netherlands, battle the Hapsburgs, extend the French dominion to eastern Canada, impose national authority, build the French Navy, and engineer the extraordinary gardens at Versailles, when he was always in the bedroom?
Lady Antonia Fraser writes tantalizingly around this question in her latest book, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Earlier this week, before he totally lost his voice, Scott Simon spoke with her. And a heads-up, Scott's voice is very rough in this interview.
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Let me ask you about that relationship that he had that cemented his ideal of women: his relationship with his mother. Louis the XIV's birth was considered something of a miracle at the time it occurred.
Lady ANTONIA FRASER (Author, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King): Yes, he was given the name Dieudonné, Given by God, because his mother, Anne of Austria, she was married at 14 and she gave birth to Louis when she was getting close to 38. And this was a time when people did not have late babies. People were considered to be over the hill by the time they were 30. But when Louis appeared so healthy and marvelous, I mean I think it was the greatest thing that ever happened in her life.
SIMON: I want to ask you about his first love, Maria Mancini, who was not regarded as one of the great beauties of the court, but he was touched by her intelligence and her personal regard for him, as opposed to regard for the monarchy.
Lady FRASER: Yes. And Marie was an interesting character. As you say, she was not considered a beauty. She was very thin, which was not desirable at that time. Marvelous dark eyes from her Italian inheritance, but what really charmed Louis was she opened his eyes to literature. She adored Corneille, le Cid, you know, and the idea of chivalry expressed in le Cid, and love and honor and glory and duty and renunciation. And of course she wasn't considered good enough to marry him. She wasn't a great princess, so she found, alas, poor Marie, that there was love and honor, then there had to be duty and renunciation.
SIMON: Louis married Marie Theresa from the Spanish throne. And if I can get you to tell us the story of how they literally inspected each other from a distance.
Lady FRASER: The Infanta - that's the Spanish for princess - Maria Theresa was actually Louis's first cousin. And she was the greatest match in Europe, the daughter of the king of Spain. But the Spanish court was so formal, she wasn't even allowed to receive his letters before they were married. Her father, the King Philip the IV, said there would be the time for that and just took the letter away. The most respectful letter, you know, could have done no harm. And he wasn't allowed to meet her before they were married by proxy.
But being Louis, he decided he'd have a look. And so he went to the door as a stranger and sort of had a look. And she was tipped the wink - that man is actually your fiancé. I mean, it's extraordinary and they were going to be in bed that very night. You know, very different from our own day.
SIMON: It's fair to say that it was not a happy marriage, as a marriage.
Lady FRASER: It wasn't a happy marriage, but as royal marriages go it wasn't actually unhappy. There were such terrible marriages around. I mean he wasn't faithful to her, remotely faithful to her, but he was nice to her. He was fond of her. The trouble is he was bored by her. And she wasn't the sort of person he wanted as queen of France. He wanted a glorious figure at his side. As he was going to be the Sun King, he would like the Moon Queen.
SIMON: You write several times about the fact that Louis the XIV was a very serious monarch. He was not one of those monarchs who moved you as his dictum to simply to play all day, but he was very serious about statecraft.
Lady FRASER: A complete contrast to his first cousin, our King Charles II. They were first cousins. But in council meetings, Charles II was always yawning and sending notes - when can I go hunting, and I think my dog needs me. Louis XIV, on the other hand, was an obsessional worker. I mean, he spent hours in council meetings; great one for detail, the detail of army maneuvers, the details of taxes. So he had a lot of energy and also a sense of duty. He did not think he'd been put on the throne of France by God to idle.
SIMON: Want to ask you about Louise de la Vallier, and help us explain how she wound up at the French court, It was in those days for a young woman of her station almost a choice between a nunnery and the court.
Lady FRASER: Yes. There was no such thing as a job for a young woman of her station. She had no money. She was of good family but quite minor. So the only kind of job she could get was either to go to a convent, and for that you needed a dowry. You had to take money with you into convent. She didn't have any. So she got a job in the household of Louis's sister-in-law, Henriette Anne, Duchesse d'Orléans. And while she was there, Louis was having a sort of flirtation with his sister-in-law, which his mother really disapproved of. She considered it to be incest, you know. It wasn't technically, but not what his mother said.
So they worked out a ruse, like plays of Moliere - who was the court playwright - that Louis would pretend to be courting Louise, who was adorable and 16 and had a crush on him. Actually, he'd be courting Henriette Anne. But of course, as in all the best plays, he really fell in love with Louise. She was his first mistress.
SIMON: Contrary to what we might think that romantic hijinx, if I might put it that way, were accepted with a wink and a nod at the court, you suggest in this book the church took a very serious interest and even disapproving interest.
Lady FRASER: Yes. That was a surprise to me as I began my researches. Because I'd imagined, as you put it, that you know, a nod and a wink. To a certain extent, when the king was young, there were some nods and winks. But all the time, the great leaders of the church, people like Bishop Bossuet, were thundering away in sermons that the whole court would gather together, including the king, and the preacher preached just before Easter. And Bishop Bossuet had a famous trick. He'd say, I denounce the king for adultery. And everybody drew in their breath with horror. He said, King David in the Bible...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Lady FRASER: Well, everyone knows Kind David committed adultery, so you could hardly say you can't do that, you know. So it was a sort of game of cat and mouse.
SIMON: A sadder episode in the king's life is he was 40 and a triumphant warrior, and he developed an infatuation for a young girl of 17 or 18, Angelique.
Lady FRASER: Angelique de Fontange was said to be the most beautiful woman ever at the court. She doesn't look so beautiful to me, but then we have different standards. And she thought she was going to be the new (French word) she was going to be the mistress. But unfortunately, she did have a child. That wasn't unfortunate, but in the course of the childbirth, she got terribly badly damaged, really. You know, childbirth was a pretty crude art at the time, and she died. Very sad.
SIMON: Yeah. But she did make the king weep, which was considered almost unprecedented.
Lady FRASER: Unprecedented that king should weep. He had this extraordinary control. And I think when he saw this lovely young creature, not yet 21, dying - and her child also died - dying, I think he probably confronted just the black side of his behavior, you know.
SIMON: We live in a time when people are fascinated by - this week it's Britney Spears and what's his name, Kevin Federline - splitville.
Lady FRASER: Yeah.
SIMON: And people are, measurably by the millions, are fascinated by that. Can you trace that fascination back to the preoccupation that the public used to have with royals and even to this day?
Lady FRASER: Yes. I think the word celebrity, you know, there've always been celebrities and they used to be royals in an age before stars. And royalties were the people who people gawked at and had views about, of course, and had rumors about and satires on.
SIMON: I guess I didn't quite appreciation until reading your book (unintelligible) rich people in that position lived public lives, the way the court would leak information like a sieve, the way everybody seemed to know something about them.
Lady FRASER: Well, I think conditions change but human nature doesn't change. And I think leaking like a sieve, and saying I'm in the know, if you treat me well I could let you know a thing or two, that Louis XIV I can tell you in the bedroom - you know, all of that...
Lady FRASER: ...I think this is very human, and we're just like it today, except the circumstances have changes.
SIMON: On the whole, you consider Louis, I think you say, the ultimate complement of the age. He was a civilized man.
Lady FRASER: Yes, if being extremely nice to women and inferiors, which is everybody. He was never cruel. When one of his courtiers insulted him, instead of doing what many kings would have done, he broke his own stick and threw it out of the window, saying, lest I be tempted not to behave like a gentleman. He treated his former mistresses with great courtesy, continued to visit them. He adored his mother.
Yes, he's certainly a civilized man in that way. And it's a tragedy for him, and was for France, that his militaristic ambitions, which he planned to put France in the center of the world, they went fine for a bit, but towards the end of his life they went much too far, and the tragic consequences of deficit and bankruptcy. And so that was very sad.
SIMON: Lady Antonia, very nice talking to you. Thank you very much.
Lady FRASER: Thank you very much.
NEARY: Lady Antonia Fraser, author of Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, speaking with Scott Simon earlier this week. That was before he lost his voice completely. To read an excerpt from Lady Antonia's book, go to npr.org.