I’ve had many people ask me why a girl from the cornfields of Illinois would have a passion – no, obsession – for life in 17th century France. The first part of the answer is easy, actually. My paternal grandmother’s family was French; she was truly my kindred spirit. Une âme soeur, a sister soul, as they say in French.
The second part of the answer – the part specifically about the 17th century – is less obvious. It has everything to do with searching for a king who eluded me for years.
When I was just thirteen years old, I had a chance to travel to Paris with a school group. As so many tourists do, we took the train from the French capitol out to Versailles. Due to an unfortunate snafu, we were not able to enter the palace. Instead, we had to content ourselves with touring the gardens only. But, if you’ve ever been to Versailles, you know that the gardens alone are worth the trip.
Ever curious and always the geek, I bought a tour book of the interior of the palace. The photographs were so vibrant, so amazing. I spent the next five years pouring over every detail of every photograph. I concocted stories about what the inside of Versailles was like, how Louis XIV moved in the spaces, and what life at court would sound, smell, taste like. Years later, I finally had the opportunity to visit the palace.
I was devastated.
Call me silly, but I think now – in retrospect – I did truly expect to meet the king. Or, at least, to come in contact with some visceral evidence of his extraordinary existence. Instead, I was crushed against a sea of tourists and shuffled from furniture-less room to furniture-less room. The walls were covered with protective plexiglass. And the school children in the group behind us giggled and squealed in ways that made my eardrums ache.
I have spent nearly 20 years of my adult life researching the seventeenth century. I am sure it is because I am always looking for Louis.
Over time, I’ve gotten to know him well. Too well. Yes, he was the Sun King. And yes, his legacy is one of unyielding magnificence. But, the Louis I know now had rotten teeth and problems with anorectal fistulae. He was a king of splendor and of stink.
Or, maybe I’m just still mad at him for not meeting me at the gates of his palace all those years ago?
Image: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV