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Monday, November 26, 2012

“Versailles: A Biography of a Palace”, by Tony Spawforth

320 pages, St. Martin's Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312357856

I like to recommend books I have greatly enjoyed or from which I've learned a lot. But I find that is not quite possible with Versailles: A Biography of a Palace. This is not a coffee table picture book of Versailles; there are plenty of those to be had. What's been missing from the literature on this subject has been a book that explains the workings of the palace, its social and political context and the routines and rhythms of day-to-day life in what was, essentially, an enormous gilded cage for the French nobility. I was looking for a more human history than what this book presents. It would have been interesting to learn about all the artisans, chefs and gardeners that were hired to work at the palace. There are chunks of this book that are so dry it is hard to plough through. In the early chapters, the author describes at length the process of building the palace, but lacking illustrations or maps of the palace, I found it difficult to follow. The palace was always intended as a showcase to promote all things French: from the lace on the sleeve to the china on the table to the high tech engineering of the fountains, and although the tapestries and porcelains are mentioned, I would have liked to have learned more about how important these were and how things were acquired for the palace (hell, the mirrors alone deserve a book of their own). I expected to come out of reading this book with a feeling of how this palace and home came together and how humans (including kings) lived their daily and private lives there, with the everyday niceties and problems, but this is not what this book is about.

The expansive title and good press that accompanied this book promised an interesting history of the palace of Versailles, but, unfortunately, it reads more along the lines of an abridged version of the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon. While there are numerous anecdotes of the various people that lived at Versailles, they can be read elsewhere in greater detail with more relevance to their significance to society and history. There is no order to what is written, and while the author jumps back and forth across decades, the focus is primarily that of the reign of Louis XIV. There is little or no mention of Marley or the evolution of the Trianon’s under Louis XIV, the petites apartments of Louis XV, the Petit Trianon, Hamlet, and gardens of Marie Antoinette much less the inventiveness that accompanied their creation. There is little history post revolution that could include fascinating stories from Napoleon through the end of WWI. The history that would complement and illustrate the lives of the people that made Versailles the center of European culture for decades is lacking. Surely there are better books that capture these details and tell a more complete story of Versailles. Unfortunately this is not one of them as it never appears to aspire to be more than what the Duc de Saint-Simon saw and wrote about in his lifetime.

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