Thursday, January 31, 2013

Versailles: Biography of a Palace by Tony Spawforth

The title of this book is pretty self-explanatory: it's a non-fiction book that details the history of Versailles (while it was still functioning as a palace--I don't think its more recent history is quite as fascinating): how it was built and constantly rebuilt, the people who lived there and how they lived, etc.

Ever since I visited Versailles in 2009, I've been interested to learn more about it and the "Louis's" who built it and lived there. (It's taken me far too long to actually pick up a book about it...) This book did a great job telling the story not just of the building itself, but also of the royalty and the court and some of the crazy social customs. It seems it would have been impossible to memorize which tiny gesture means what, but it could mean life or death (socially, that is).

Like so many, I got sucked into the intrigue and mystery involved in the life of Marie Antoinette. The book was constantly referring to her love of informality and how she completely got rid of such customs as constantly trailing a retinue of servants. I can't say I blame her; being queen must have been so difficult and complicated, and maybe even empty. I'm still not sure where her "Let them eat cake"-esque reputation came from; the book didn't mention it, unfortunately. Although she was extravagant in some ways, it didn't amount to a fraction of the extravagance of the Louis's XIV, XV, and XVI. Like I said, she actually toned down some of the ridiculously formal customs of the court.

Another thing that disappointed me about the book (other than its lack of mentioning the "Let them eat cake" episode) was the almost complete omission of the entire little village in the back of the grounds. Near the Petit Trianon (or is it part of the Petit Trianon? The book was frustratingly vague on this point) is a fairly large collection of buildings that make up basically a fake little village. I know because I have seen it with my own eyes, in person. According to *cough* very reliable sources (okay, my mom, who has read a bajillion more books than I have, by the way, and never exaggerates--so I trust her, but I don't blame you if you don't), Marie Antoinette stocked this "village" with actors who just pretended to be, you know, quaint little village people (except for like, you know, poverty and stuff) and when M.A. felt like it, she would put off her royal robes and dress up too and wander around the village pretending she wasn't queen. I still remember my mom telling me this, years ago, because it was so fascinating. So how, I ask, could the book leave this almost completely out? It describes some of the things that are back there, but doesn't go into nearly as much detail as it should have. It was quite a disappointment for me, because that was one of the main reasons I actually read the book. So I may have to just go seek out a biography of Marie Antionette herself to get answers.

Other than that disappointment, the book was great to get to know Versailles and its history better. There were some fascinating stories from the court, and facts so outlandish they were hard to believe. (For instance, when the queen gave birth, everyone in court was invited to watch. And a lot of people actually did, as though childbirth were some sort of theatrical production. Seriously??) The palace of Versailles was a crazy place, and it was fascinating to read about.


  1. Oh yes, seriously. The succession was that important; they couldn't risk the possibility--or even rumors of the possibility--of a substitution in case of a stillbirth or unwanted girl. When the son of James II was born (would have been James III but only got to be the Old Pretender), there were rumors about him despite the 50 or so people in the birthing room.

    I don't think it was any fun at all to be queen.

  2. It's such a centerpiece of so much French history and of the excesses and issues of its time. I've been there a couple of times and the serenity of the place betrays all the troubles it caused both as it cost so much to construct and of course with the French Revolution.