Robin Briggs

At the end of a work comparing the first three Bourbon kings, the duc de Saint-Simon invites us to make a final judgment between them, and to be persuaded that the precise truth has guided every stroke of his pen. With characteristic dexterity, he couples this nuanced claim to objectivity with the suggestion that it has only been achieved by subordinating his feelings of ‘just gratitude’ towards Louis XIII. It was that king who had raised the memorialist’s father, his personal favourite for some ten years, to the rank of duke and peer, so we should not be wholly surprised to find Saint-Simon challenging conventional opinion by rating him higher as both person and king than either Henri IV or Louis XIV.

The transparent and half-avowed bias of this assessment must be balanced, however, against the intelligence of the historical analysis used to support it, far superior to anything to be found in the official histories of the time. The Parallèle des trois premiers rois Bourbons remains a work every historian of the French 17th century needs to read, and not just because it contains a series of brilliantly apt vignettes backing up its arguments. Some of these came from the first duke, who was already 68 when his heir was born in 1675, yet lived on until 1693, a relic of the time when Versailles was just a favoured royal hunting lodge. There is some irony in the fact that the belated marriage which produced Saint-Simon was with a member of the L’Aubespine family, descended from a 16th-century secretary of state and predecessor of that vile bourgeoisie of royal ministers excoriated by le petit duc.

Despite his protestations, ambiguity and unreliability permeate Saint-Simon’s enormous oeuvre, as they did his political opinions and actions. Not without cause, his outstanding modern editor, Yves Coirault, entitled his collection of essays Dans la forêt Saint-Simonienne, evoking images of luxuriant growth and meandering pathways. Many historians have been led astray by this wickedly persuasive writer, launching deadly shafts against his enemies out of thick cover. Less obviously egotistical than his great predecessor in the genre, the Cardinal de Retz, he has made it even more difficult to keep an open mind on the events and personalities he describes with such verve and venom. If we can’t begin to write the history of Louis XIV’s later years and the Regency without him, it seems almost impossible to do so safely with him.

More broadly, a whole interpretation of the Ancien Régime has been built on his work, depicting Versailles as the keystone in a plan to domesticate the great aristocracy and deprive them of their traditional independence. Over recent years, the numerous fallacies in this view have been repeatedly exposed, yet like many attractive simplifications it has proved remarkably hard to kill. Many of us have paid exaggerated respect to Norbert Elias’s The Court Society (published in 1969 but essentially dating from the Twenties), whose apparent sophistication only thinly masks a simplistic argument, with a good deal of anachronism thrown in.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in