The Setting of a Royal Son
Time, October 30, 1994

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by W. H. Lewis
386 pages; Anchor Books; $1.45.

BESIDES BEING an indefatigable woman chaser who didn't care what he mixed with his Bourbon blood, France's Louis XIV was a fatherly figure who did his best to treat his bastards as if they were true princes. Decked out with noble titles, married off to peers of the realm, the royal by-blows took their places in court and kingdom beside their legitimate brothers. Thus raised high by the king's power alone, the king's shadow family was a perfect gauge of his fortunes.

This splendid sequel to The Splendid Century, British Historian W. H. Lewis's remarkable study of the Sun King at the high noon of his power, has just been brought out in paperback. In it Lewis skillfully uses the checkered life of the duc du Maine, Louis' most maligned illegitimate son, to chronicle the crumbling of French grandeur and the approach of le déluge.

Convulsive Barking. Louis Auguste de Bourbon, first (and last) duc du Maine, was a man all but killed by royal kindness. The son of Madame de Montespan, Louis' most beautiful mistress, he became protégé of Madame de Maintenon, Louis' most enduring love. Thoughtful, diffident, unworldly, the duc had no gift for the great stage onto which fate and father thrust him.

He might have made a good country curate. Instead, at 20, he was appointed a General Officer of Cavalry. Pressed by the urgings of the flesh, he dutifully asked his father to find him a wife.

The result was disaster. Louis chose a daughter of the Prince de Condé, whose family ran to madness as some families run to fat. Condé had a habit of barking convulsively—though at court he usually managed to stuff his mouth with a silk drapery when he felt such an attack coming on.

Prison Bound. It was no surprise therefore that Maine's dwarf-sized duchess believed herself to be a fairy princess. She nearly beggared the duc trying to make the fairyland divertissements at their chateau in Sceaux out-rival the splendors of Versailles. As Louis XIV aged, she relentlessly drove her unwilling duc into the struggle over the succession. And under the regency of the duc d'Orléans that followed, she plotted with the court of Spain to put Maine in power and got her helpless husband thrown into prison on charges of treason.

Recounting these personal details, Author Lewis also keeps track of great events—the massing of European sovereigns against Louis, the battle of Blenheim, where French military pride suffered its most decisive setback. He is persistently concerned with rectifying the long-distorted picture of Maine and Madame de Maintenon, both of whom are customarily presented as monsters of intrigue and ambition.

Dark Suspicion. But Lewis is neither a modern historical polemicist, hastily herding his readers into a constricting corral of conclusions, nor a footnote plodder. He writes with an old-fashioned, speculative charm occasionally rising to eloquence, and ends by showing off a complex half-century as an English gentleman might show off a well-loved garden. Here is Louis objecting to Madame de Maintenon when she was first suggested as Maine's governess because "she was the sort of woman who read poetry, and the King, darkly but unjustly, suspected her of writing it." And Maine's lusty military friend, the duc de Vendôme, who invariably ate breakfast and directed his battles seated on a portable chaise percée. And the duc d'Orléans, the Regent who officially destroyed the power and prestige of Louis' bastards, also had Rabelais' work bound in a prayer book cover to avoid official boredom at unavoidable church services. Making his personages all human, Lewis somehow manages not to diminish them.