In the chequered pantheon of European royalty, Louis XIV stands out as one of its more glamorous and colourful monarchs. From his coronation in 1654, until his death in 1715, Louis reigned over one of the golden ages of French history. In the popular imagination, Louis' reign was characterised by his opulent and decadent personal lifestyle, a king more interested in courtly intrigue and the Baroque creation of Versailles and Marly than the plight of his starving but remarkably loyal subjects. However, as Ian Dunlop points out in his massive and painstakingly detailed biography, Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King of France, was a politically astute and wily ruler. Dunlop argues that Louis "was a man whose foremost concern in life was what it meant to be a king", and therein lay both the remarkable advances but also the crippling limitations of Louis' reign. Dunlop is particularly strong on highlighting the politically precarious situation under which Louis came to the throne and his close personal relations with a string of Machiavellian advisors--first Mazarin, then Fouquet, the officious Colbert and Louvois, who were all ultimately more effective than their king in transforming France from the age of Feudalism into the age of the Enlightenment.
Some of the most enjoyable sections of the book vividly evoke the labyrinthine intrigues of Louis' extensive court, his complex and extensive love affairs and his enthusiastic patronage of some of the finest manifestations of French cultural life. These included the ambitious architecture and landscape gardens of Versailles and Marly and the writings of, amongst others, Molière, Racine, Pascal, La Fontaine, Boiseau and the letters of Madame de Sévigné. However, Dunlop's biography is ultimately a dense account of the complex dynastic and military dimensions of Louis' reign, including detailed descriptions of his campaigns in Holland, his desire to rule Spain and his ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Marlborough. As a result, Dunlop tends to lose sight of what Louis was really like, but the intensely public nature of the king's personae makes this virtually impossible. Dunlop clearly admires his subject and tends to forgive his sexual misdemeanours, his political absolutism and his religious intolerance to an extent that some readers may find his study verging on the hagiographic. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and authoritative account of a king whose name, as Voltaire commented, "will not be uttered without respect and without associating with it the idea of a century eternally memorable." --Jerry Brotton [via]