We know a vast amount of what went on in Versailles at the court of the Louis XIV, especially between the years 1691 and 1723, when the French monarchy, having reached the apogee of its power, was descending and slowly wending its way to the murderous French Revolution. Much of what we know comes from a little man with a perhaps exaggerated sense of amour-propre named Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon. From his somewhat shaky position at the middle-distance from power, he was sedulously taking the most careful notes. In his retirement years, between 1723 and his death at the age of eighty in 1755, he turned these notes into his Memoirs, the most extensive, richly amusing, and literarily most impressive memoirs ever written. ( Joseph Epstein )
“No one understood better than Louis XIV the art of enhancing the value of a favour by his manner of bestowing it; he knew how to make the most of a word, a smile, even of a glance. If he addressed any one, were it but to ask a trifling question or make some commonplace remark, all eyes were turned on the person so honored; it was a mark of favour which always gave rise to comment….”
In his insultingly tiny Versailles room a noble diarist recorded life in the court of the Sun King. Prudery, malice, and considerations of status filled his pages and produced a masterpiece….
“His Ministers, generals, mistresses, and courtiers soon found out his weak point, namely, his love of hearing his own praises. There was nothing he liked so much as flattery, or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it. That was the only way to approach him; if he ever took a liking to a man it was invariably due to some lucky stroke of flattery in the first instance, and to indefatigable perseverance in the same line afterwards. His Ministers owed much of their influence to their frequent opportunities for burning incense before him….”
To sit or not to sit; to doff one’s hat or keep it on. Will one, or will one not, be able to retain the right of sprinkling a royal coffin with holy water? Who shall, and who shall not, hold the king’s shirt or pour water over the royal hands or remove the royal dung?
Stiff necked, dressed in clothes as bright as a peacock’s feathers, the courtiers of Louis XIV moved about Versailles to the strains of Lully and Couperin like great heraldic beasts caught up in a ritual dance: elegant, stylized, yet intensely taught. Beneath the great wigs, every beady eye would be watching. Was the head inclined so slightly that the courtesy implied insult; was the bow so deep that it hinted at a grovel, so perfectly attuned as to imply friendship based on equal status? A correct assessment might lead to intrigue, power or disgrace. No world has ever been so formal as Saint Simon’s no so fearful of hidden danger.
“It was this love of praise which made it easy for Louvois to engage him in serious wars, for he persuaded him that he had greater talents for war than any of his Generals, greater both in design and in execution, and the Generals themselves encouraged him in this notion, to keep in favour with him. I mean such Generals as Condé and Turenne; much more, of course, those who came after them. He took to himself the credit of their successes with admirable complacency, and honestly believed that he was all his flatterers told him. Hence arose his fondness for reviews, which he carried so far that his enemies called him, in derision, “the King of reviews”; hence also his liking for sieges, where he could make a cheap parade of bravery, and exhibit his vigilance, forethought, and endurance of fatigue; for his robust constitution enabled him to bear fatigue marvellously; he cared nothing for hunger, heat, cold, or bad weather. He liked also, as he rode through the lines, to hear people praising his dignified bearing and fine appearance on horck. His campaigns were his favourite topic when talking to his mistresses….”
The court of Louis XIV functioned like some elaborate clock, from the hour when the king was dressed in public, to the daily mass in the royal chapel, to the formalized meals and the royal parades when ghe king and his family passed slowly down the long line of courtiers, speaking to some, nodding to others; ignoring a few. Daily presence at these rituals was essential. Every tongue would be wagging; the whole atmosphere would be charged with an intensity of emotion that we find hard to appreciate.
Unless we do, the world of Saint-Simon will remain closed to us; a boring parade of bewigged nonentities, long dead and, except for the king and a few of his marshals, long forgotten. If we realize that these arts, which Saint Simon described so passionately and watched so meticulously, were the keys to power, the visible signs of status in a struggle as vivid, as cruel, and at times as final as the mating instincts of stick insects, then the gyrations of these gilded creatures become utterly absorbing.
His mind was occupied with small things rather than with great, and he delighted in all sorts of petty details, such as the dress and drill of his soldiers; and it was just the same with regard to his building operations, his household, and even his cookery. He always thought he could teach something of their own craft even to the most skilful professional men; and they, for their part, used to listen gratefully to lessons which they had long ago learnt by heart. He imagined that all this showed his indefatigable industry; in reality, it was a great waste of time, and his Ministers turned it to good account for their own purposes, as soon as they had learnt the art of managing him; they kept his attention engaged with a mass of details, while they contrived to get their own way in more important matters.
It is only because day after day, year after year, the Duc de Saint-Simon scribbled down all he saw and heard that it is possible for us to enter fully into the emotions and conflicts that swept through the foul, stinking corridors of Versailles: As vivid in the stench of human flesh and excrement as they were in the dazzlement of courtly costumes. Only a hard, tough, blinkered egoist could have gone on for so long recording the complex, corrupt , power and sex ridden court life of France.
But Saint Simon was such an egoist and he was an obsessed egoist. His privileges as a Duc de France were as dear to him as life itself. Every gesture of the king and family, every assumption of rights, every breach of protocol , was charged with emotion for him; he would reel off pages on the iniquity of an ambassador’s daughter who offered her cheek to be kissed by a princess of the blood. A part of Saint-Simon’s magic lies in the way that he makes us feel the passionate horror associated with the breaches of protocol in a hierarchic society that at first sight seems so alien.
He availed himself of the frequent festivities at Versailles, and his excursions to other places, as a means of making the courtiers assiduous in their attendance and anxious to please him; for he nominated beforehand those who were to take part in them, and could thus gratify some and inflict a snub on others. He was conscious that the substantial favours he had to bestow were not nearly sufficient to produce a continual effect; he had therefore to invent imaginary ones, and no one was so clever in devising petty distinctions and preferences which aroused jealousy and emulation. The visits to Marly later on were very useful to him in this way; also those to Trianon, where certain ladies, chosen beforehand, were admitted to his table. It was another distinction to hold his candlestick at his coucher; as soon as he had finished his prayers he used to name the courtier to whom it was to be handed, always choosing one of the highest rank among those present…
It seems as a shock to learn what a wonderful instrument etiquette could be for conveying malice and envy, as well as gratitude, and how skillfully the courtiers of Louis XIV played on it. Gradually, these dukes and marquises, cardinals and countesses, cavorting in their complex dances, take on the lineaments of humanity. Saint Simon was alive to every nuance, rushing back to his room, insultingly small he felt, to set down everything that he had seen or heard.
The result of Saint-Simon’s obsession is quite incredible. The full edition of his memoirs runs to a staggering forty-three fat volumes , a ziggurat of letters that dominates the history of France during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. One may hate it or love it, but, just as Saint-Simon would have it wanted, no one can ignore it. Although his memoirs certainly helpped to assuage his obsessive passions about privilege, Saint-Simon always designed them to be far more than that. His intention from the first moment he set pen to paper was to be a great historian, to rival the famous Froissart, whose pages had brought alive the France of the Hundred Years War. He wanted to depict his world. He did.
He always took great pains to find out what was going on in public places, in society, in private houses, even family secrets, and maintained an immense number of spies and tale-bearers. These were of all sorts; some did not know that their reports were carried to him; others did know it; there were others, again, who used to write to him directly, through channels which he prescribed; others who were admitted by the backstairs and saw him in his private room. Many a man in all ranks of life was ruined by these methods, often very unjustly, without ever being able to discover the reason; and when the King had once taken a prejudice against a man, he hardly ever got over it….
Louis de Rouvroy was born at Versailles on January 15, 1675. His father the Duc de Saint-Simon was sixty-nine years old , and Louis succeeded to the title at the age of eighteen. His education was supervised by a strict and devout young mother. She hated to corruptions of court life , but was as concerned with its hierarchic conventions as her son learned to be; only fitting perhaps for the Saint-Simons had been elevated to the dukedom quite recently by Louis XIII and, at least, had ast least one bourgeois skeleton in their closet from Saint-Simon’s grandmother. Saint-Simon had the slapdash education usual for his class: very little academic work, but immense labors at horsemanship, swordsmanship , dancing and military exercises, but it was with the pen and not the sword which he employed far more frequently and often in a corrosive manner. His take on Voltaire.
Voltaire is not known for truckling to royal power, in fact it was his “marque de commerce” for getting attention. In 1718 the premiere of his play “Oedipus” scandalized the Court with the line “Tremble, unfortunate Kings, for your reign is past.” An even more notorious zinger suggests how he really felt about the matter: he longed for the day, he said, when the last king is strangled to death with the bowels of the last priest.
Like Voltaire, Saint-Simon saw the end of France’s immemorial glory approaching, though he viewed that end from a sharply different angle. Louis XIV had no high opinion on his merits and rather disliked him for being ” very heated on matters concerning precedent”, as Saint Simon himself admitted. Yet, Saint Simon always managed to worm his way close enough to witness and record the tragedy of Louis XIV’s declining years. He was closer still to the farcical and macabre Regency of the Duc d’Orleans that followed the king’s death.
“In his memoirs, the Duc treats Voltaire like a scurrilous upstart and dismantles any claim he might have to literary eminence. Voltaire, whose real name was Arouet, was the son of a notary who had served as the Duc’s lawyer, and was therefore a lowborn fellow. He was exiled, wrote the Duc, for writing monstrously satirical, monstrously impudent verses. I should not waste time over such trifles, had not this Arouet, now a famous poet and academician under the pseudonym Voltaire, also become, after many disastrous adventures, something of a personage in the world of letters, even winning a kind of reputation among certain sorts of people. In Saint-Simon’s estimation, the most celebrated writer of his time is transformed into a jumped-up homunculus, a guttersnipe whom no person of true distinction would regard with anything but contempt.
Saint-Simon was accustomed to delivering such pronouncements from on high. Although he was barely five feet tall and had a voice like a squeeze-toy, no one was more ferociously punctilious about matters of honor and ceremony. He was a traditionalist hothead who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including the king. Protective of the privileges of his dukedom as a mother dog is of her newborn litter, he was adept in the scrimmages for status that occupied a good deal of most courtiers’ time and energy. As the dukedom had been quite recently bestowed—on Saint-Simon’s father by Louis XIII, whom the grateful son venerated above Louis XIV—a certain insecurity colored the Duc’s passion for his rightful place. His dignity, which he wore like a long and splendid train, was continually getting stepped on by those following too closely or attempting to overtake him. He was the court’s self-appointed guardian of the proprieties, and in that role proved both hard-nosed and feckless. “