Book Review: Louis XVI
by John Hardman
Yale University Press, 2016
John Hardman originally attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of the doomed Bourbon King Louis XVI back in 1993, the bicentennial of the year the king went to the guillotine. But French Revolution scholarship has progressed apace since then, and in 1998 the king’s correspondence with his foreign secretary was published, which naturally revamped the landscape a bit more. Thus the appearance of a newly revised and augmented edition of The Life of Louis XVI – in a lovely, sturdy hardcover edition from Yale University Press – is an entirely welcome thing, even if the book’s task remains every bit as daunting. The character of this king has been carved in stone for two centuries: a dimwitted, foppish faineant whose clueless arrogance did as much as anything else to provoke the revolution that ended up costing him and his wife Marie Antoinette their heads. The 1775 Joseph-Siffred Duplessis portrait on the book’s US dust jacket perfectly captures that Louis: bewigged, cheek-rouged, lip-pursed, glowingly supercilious – as alien a creature to the 28 million French people of his day as a purple pod-squid from the planet Neptune.
Hardman has a well-nigh impossible task ahead of him in reclaiming such a being for the ranks of recognizable humanity, although he certainly gives such a task his best, most elaborate efforts. His Louis, though “deliberately indecisive,” is a more complicated figure than has appeared in any previous English-language biography, an intelligent if feckless man who was fascinated by the intricacies of locks and gears and who, though oddly shy and self-doubting, was equally fascinated by the people who swam in and out of his extremely rarefied royal fish bowl. Louis was interested in the workings of other nations (especially England – he was constantly investigating the laws and social behaviors of his country’s inveterate enemy), and he could at times be a shrewd enough operator on the international stage – Americans would always do well to recall that this was the French king who threw his country’s support behind the American Revolution, which couldn’t possibly have succeeded without it.
But all such allowances only go so far, and it’s lucky Hardman has a great deal of other material to occupy his attentions throughout this terrific book. Any but the most useless of Louis XVI biographies, for instance, must also be a history of the ancien regime and the French Revolution, and Hardman writes that larger story with tremendous authority and narrative zeal, always finding the perfect quotes to supplement his own pithy descriptions of the era’s near-infinite procession of colorful characters, like Louis’ finance minister, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne:
For he was witty in an age which admired wit, charming in an age which relished charm, but it was felt that these were not the requirements of a minister of the crown. Talleyrand noted, “the majority of men like to see the qualities of hard work and prudence in ministers; Calonne was not reassuring on either count.”
(Hardman is equally quotable at all other times, regularly spiking his accounts with pinches of wry humor: “In Britain today,” he writes, “when a minister is forced out of office, he routinely says that he wants to spend more time with his family, even if he hates them. The ancien regime equivalent was to leave for health reasons, often to take the waters, the reason Necker gave in 1790”)
The tawdry end of the story – the trial and rude execution of the ordinary citizen “Louis Capet” – is constantly hurtling toward the reader, which serves to make Hardman’s account of the man’s daffy, hopeful early years seem extra pathetic and his account of the king in captivity extra embarrassing, with the silly fop making a steady stream of ill-tempered demands (pocket money, chamberlains, the works) even while his mobster jailers were out in the yard whetting the guillotine blade. “He was banking on a counter-revolution of the mind in his misled subjects,” Hardman insightfully concludes about Louis’ final mindset. “This was his settled view, in so far as a man of his mutable temperament – one recalls Provence’s analogy with the oiled billiard balls – may be said to have had one.”
The story of Louis XVI can only be one slim kind of edifying, no matter how many new caches of letters come to light. Kings had ruled in France for a thousand years before he pranced onto the world stage in his corset and platform shoes; some of those kings had been doughty warriors, and some of them had been diabolical statesmen. A solid percentage had been mad. But by the time of Louis, a root-and-stem decadence had developed that could only survive as a more or less wholly sponsored arm of the government (something Louis’ Hanoverian contemporaries across the Channel were learning in far less bloody ways) – and if the government didn’t want such an appendage, no amount of tradition or sacrament would prevent it from flying off. It would make for very picturesque reading if Louis had somehow been a final flickering of a brighter light, but for all his empathy, Hardman is smart enough to resist taking such a route. His Louis makes for a negligible loss – but a superb biography.