It was the world of Saint-Simon. In his insultingly tiny Versailles room a noble diarist recorded life in the court of the Sun King. Prudery, malice, and consideration of status filled his pages and produced a masterpiece that recorded the tragedy of Louis XIV’s declining years…
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. 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.
It comes 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 royal court characters, cavorting in their complex dances, take on the lineaments of humanity. Saint-Simon was alive to every nuance, rushing back to his room to set down everything that he had seen and heard.
The center of Saint-Simon’s world was the king, whom he watched with reverence and loathing. Louis XIV was a tiny man, of vast dignity, an insatiable sexual appetite that hardly diminished, even in advanced old age, and a capacity for work commensurate with his potency. After a desperate childhood and adolescence, during which France was wracked with aristocratic civil wars that reduced the monarchy to penury, he had built up the power and glory of France to Augustan proportions: indeed, Augustan Rome was Louis’s ideal, and an ideal achieved.
By 1689 France dominated western Europe not only politically but culturally as well, particularly in the literary and decorative arts. The European aristocracy flocked to Versailles to learn how to live and to bask momentarily in the reflected rays of Louis’s greatness. He took the sun for his symbol, the center of radiance, the giver of life, the promoter of growth. And, though he lived in great luxury and extravagance, Louis always put France first.
Saint-Simon, however, hated him; hated particularly the way that he promoted men of bourgeois origins, men like Colbert, the great finance minister who had done so much to extend the commerce and add to the riches of France. Saint-Simon, prudish and conventional, also deplored Louis’s sexual appetites, his mistresses and their bastards, whom Louis loved as much as their illegitimate children. Above all, Saint-Simon loathed Mme de Maintenon, Louis’s morganatic wife. Saint- Simon sneered at her as the “Widow Scarron” because she had been married previously to the playwright Paul Scarron and had at one time been a governess to Louis’s bastard children. To Saint-Simon she was ” born in the gutter and a disgrace to the royal bed.” No disdain was too great for her. Her discretion, piety, modesty, and reticence meant nothing. She came from the wrong womb, and that was final.
WAS LOUIS XIV A BASTARD? French historians have generally dismissed the allegation as mere tittle-tattle. The close relations that existed between Cardinal Mazarin, who succeeded Richelieu as Louis XIII’s chief minister, and the Queen, Anne of Austria, generated rumours. It was said that Louis XIV was Mazarin’s son. Two objections to this story have been advanced: Mazarin was absent from Paris at the relevant moment and Anne was too closely watched for adultery on her part for it to have taken place. But Anthony Levi argues that Mazarin was indeed in Paris in late 1637 and that Richelieu, who was all-powerful at the time, would not have opposed an action that would effeely exclude from the throne Louis XIII’s tiresome brother, Gaston d’Orleans.
Levi thinks it is ‘overwhelmingly likely’ that Mazarin was Louis XIV’s father, but since this hypothesis can never be proved, it is only worth making if it can shed new light on the Sun King’s behaviour and actions. This is what this unconventional biography sets out to do. Levi asserts that historians have largely neglected Louis’s ‘interior insecurities’ and ‘intimate devotional life’ by concentrating on his military activity and the court life of Versailles. He prefers to focus initially on the King’s upbringing and on the relationship between Mazarin and Anne of Austria. The challenge posed by the Fronde is touched upon, but the author seems more interested in affairs of the heart t hart affairs of state. The young Louis XIV’s voracious sexual appetite is taken as indicative of a chronic sense of insecurity. which is ascribed not only to his upbringing and idolisation, but also to the ‘clergy-fuelled guilt induced in him by the clash between his religion and his illicit liaisons’. ( R.J. Knecht )
But Louis XIV failed Saint-Simon in minor as well as major matters. He depicts the king as a man without love, cold, cowardly, inhuman. And he never tires of anecdotes that illustrate the king’s failings- anecdotes, however, that often enough illustrate nothing more than Saint-Simon’s malice , for many of these tales have been proved to be quite false. When old servants died, Louis XIV expressed no emotion, it is true, and in battle he was circumspect. But the reason for this was that Louis understood the ritual art of kingship. Kings did not weep in public, nor did they get killed in battle. “I am the state”, Louis said, and he meant it. He behaved as if he were.
Even on his deathbed, Louis, dying inch by inch of gangrene, he showed the same strict dignity that only powerful self-control could sustain. Kings died, as they lived, in public. symbols of greatness. And the same ideal of kingship was responsible for the act that enraged Saint-Simon the most. In 1714 Louis gave the royal bastards the right of royal succession. This is the great horror story of the memoirs.
Like a figure of ancient tragedy, Louis XIV in his old age suffered the hammer blows of fate. His country staggered to defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession. Blenhaim, Malplaquet, Ramillies, Oudenarde- these victories of the great Duke of Marlborough drained France’s armies and her finances; harvests failed and famine was widespread; the curse of God seemed to be on the land. When Louis’s son, his grandson the Duke of Burgundy, and his grandson’s wife followed each other to the grave within a year, accompanied by their eldest son, Louis’s great-grandson, aged five- alive one day, black with fever the next- the king decided he was being punished for his sins, for the riotous sexuality of his youth, with the lovely La Valliere and lovelier Montespan. His sole heir was a puny great-grandson, not yet weaned.
But the state must survive, and could only do so, Louis felt, through the king’s own children; otherwise the aristocrats would be at each other’s throats again, as they had been during his youth. So Louis insisted on giving the rank of prince of the blood to all his grown-up bastard sons. Saint-Simon, blind to the state’s necessities, could see it merely as an intrigue of the wretched “Widow Scarron” . He could not see that, as always, when the state was in conflict with the heraldic world, Louis XIV put the state first. But after the king’s death in 1715, the sickly baby survived and became Louis XV; the king,s legitimate nephew, the Duc d’Orleans, became regent, and the bastards, much to Saint-Simon’s joy, were denied the right of succession.
(ADDENDUM )…Sensitive as a spider-web, registering the subtlest tremor of offense against his dignity, Saint-Simon is the aristocrat par excellence, as described by Montesquieu, Tolstoy, and Churchill—the man for whom honor is his raison d’être. Honor can be a force of moral beauty, but it can also be the justification for ugliness of various stripes. Saint-Simon was not above defending his own dubious behavior in honor’s name, thus seeming peevish and self-absorbed rather than noble. If honor is to enjoy pride of place in the hearts of a nation’s aristocracy, it needs to serve something higher than the grasping self.
Saint-Simon saw others grasping everywhere he looked, and professed to look upon the dismal spectacle with disinterestedness. On the death in 1711 of the dauphin, the king’s son and presumptive heir, the pleasures of observing and understanding the reactions of the Court overcame any emotion he might have felt at the loss. Of course, as Saint-Simon had always regarded the dauphin as fundamentally inert, with all the rare distinction of an undercooked pudding, he was not inclined to go into deep mourning.
…[S]ince the King was at Marly, I felt unconstrained and could study the crowd at my ease, allowing my eyes to dwell on those who from various motives were much or little affected. Thus I followed the movements of certain personages and endeavored stealthily to penetrate their inmost thoughts; for indeed, to one who knows the inner life of a Court, these first moments after some tremendous event are intensely gratifying. Each face reminds one of the cares and intrigues, the laborious efforts to advance a private fortune or form and strengthen a cabal, the cunning devices designed and executed for such purposes, the attachments at varying degrees of intimacy, the estrangements, dislikes, and hatreds, the unkind turns played and the favours granted, the tricks, petty shifts, and baseness of some individuals, the dashing of the hopes of some in mid-career, the stupefaction of others at the summit who had thought their ambitions fulfilled.
To engage in such watchfulness and to penetrate into the closely guarded chambers of character offer perhaps the supreme pleasures that being a courtier holds for a man such as Saint-Simon. He just happens to be one of those who need to get to the bottom of things. Clear-sightedness ranks perhaps at the top of his list of virtues, and curiosity about other persons’ nature and behavior keeps his mind perennially occupied. This is not to say he had the makings of a political philosopher; abstraction and high speculation were not his strengths. The strengths he did possess were those of the ideal historian of his own time and place. He was a master of the character sketch, with the gift for seeing all round—and through—a person, a fondness for the telling anecdote, an eye for the killing detail. In undertaking his memoirs, he knew he was devoting himself to a serious literary enterprise.