Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"she is...not complete yet."

brief book review: the life of louis xiv's mistress, athenais, the real queen of france, by lisa hilton. i'm not bothering with the diacritics in athenais' name. i'm sure i could get blogger to add them in but, really, just imagine them. there's a long 'e' accent and an umlaut over the 'i.'

the good things: highly readable; well-written; clever; good bibliography.

bad things: hilton's attitude towards the people (women) she's writing about; lack of footnotes; poorly reproduced graphics.

taking them in reverse order: the graphics probably aren't hilton's fault. it's a trade paperback with full-color paintings reproduced in black-and-white. they're okay for reference but lousy for getting an idea of what people actually looked like. there are some interesting issues here to be discussed about the reliability of portraiture particularly if the client is the king of france standing six feet away glaring at you from behind your canvas and if you don't make him look damn good, the guards at the bastille may be your new best friends. hilton doesn't talk about this.

there are too few footnotes. there are always too few footnotes. this is my personal issue and i accept it. i love footnotes. they are your best friends when it comes to following an argument and deciding whether or not the book is worth the time you're spending on it. in this case, i'm forgiving a lot because hilton has a kick-ass bibliography, some footnotes, and has done some of her own translations.

her attitude towards the people she's talking about, however, i find somewhat more difficult to deal with. she's talking about the court of louis the xiv in the second half of the seventeenth century and specifically about louis' second mistress, athenais de montespan (married name). this is all fine and quite interesting. i can leave aside the fact that she insists that louis was the outstanding monarch of the seventeenth century (in a century which also features james i, charles i, charles ii, and james ii of england) or that louis' court was the best and the brightest ever invented (see restoration england.) everyone thinks their period and their subjects are the best and the most exciting ever. that's why we write about them. if we didn't think they were fascinating, we wouldn't spend hours and hours and hours in archives, reading rooms, microfilm rooms, library stacks, and more and more hours in front of desktops, laptops, netbooks, notebooks, legal pads, proofs, galleys, and other detritus of the publishing industry trying to tell other people about them.

but hilton's attitude towards the women she's writing about seems particularly peculiar -- she discounts anyone who wasn't deemed to be physically attractive. louis' queen, marie-therese, is described almost solely as being unattractive. other women at court who don't come up to the mark of physical beauty set by athenais are discounted as being below the required standard. some of athenais' rivals at the court -- other women, married or single, who might have been on the make for louis' affections -- are described as having the envy of unattractive women for a beautiful one. the hanoverian palatine elizabeth-charlotte -- by other accounts that i've read an incredibly influential and intelligent woman who used her time at louis' court to observe the vagaries of the french aristocracy as well as doing her best to further her own political interests from the palatinate -- is also dismissed as being plain, dumpy, and, obviously, therefore of no interest to anyone. marriages that aren't between two partners of equal attractiveness -- judged by the aforementioned standards of portraiture which i would have thought would be highly suspect -- are clearly dysfunctional and doomed to failure.

yes. thank you. because of course all motivations for women -- or, indeed, almost anyone else in hilton's account -- can be resolved down to the matter of 'who's the prettiest.'

i could get quite catty here about the fact that hilton herself, to judge from her jacket photo and author biography, is quite gorgeous and, apparently, an ex-model. i'm sure there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn here. i'm not going to do it. i feel some (bad) jokes simply make themselves.

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