The best books on the French court

The Books I Picked & Why

Letters from Liselotte: Elizabeth-Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orleans

By Maria Kroll

Letters from Liselotte: Elizabeth-Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orleans

Why this book?

Born a German princess, married to Louis XIV’s gay younger brother, ‘Liselotte’, as the Duchesse d’Orleans was often known, was an outsider who also, by her rank, was an insider. She put her venom and her frustrations into her letter-writing, denouncing the French court’s morals, policies, and personnel to her German relations. Versailles made her prefer dogs to people: she called Madame de Maintenon, the king’s second wife, ‘the old whore’. Her letters make us feel we are living at Versailles, when it was at the heart of European politics and culture.


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Memoirs Duc De Saint-Simon Volume Three: 1715-1723

By Louis De Rouvroy Saint-Simon, Lucy Norton

Memoirs Duc De Saint-Simon Volume Three: 1715-1723

Why this book?

Saint-Simon was another passionate outsider. He compensated for his lack of position and favour under Louis XIV by putting his fantasies of omniscience and his psychological perception into his memoirs. One of the great stylists of the French language, he leads readers into a universe where class, personality, and ambition are more important than public issues. He blamed French defeats on Louis XIV’s pride and ignorance. He called Versailles ’the saddest and most unrewarding place in the world’ and the King’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, heightening persecution of Protestants, ‘a general abomination born of flattery and cruelty’. At the same time, he praised the King’s ‘incomparable grace and majesty’. ‘Never was a man so naturally polite.’


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Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb

By François-René de Chateaubriand, Robert Baldick

Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb

Why this book?

In his memoirs Chateaubriand combined private life and public events, the autobiography of a Romantic with the history of the French revolution. A royalist writer, ambassador, and minister, he believed that ‘legitimate, constitutional monarchy’ was the ‘gentlest and surest path to complete freedom’. His memoirs give brilliant descriptions of the Bourbons, of whom he often despaired, including the ‘infernal vision’ of Talleyrand and Fouché entering Louis XVIII’s study, ‘vice leaning on the arm of crime’; and the bedsheets which royalist ladies converted into white Bourbon flags, to salute the entry of the allies into Paris in 1814.  For him the Hundred Days was the  ‘irredeemable crime and capital error’ of Napoleon; marriage, especially Chateaubriand’s own, was ‘the high road to all misfortunes’. Disabused of everyone, he asks: ‘is life anything but a lie?’


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Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne 1815 - 1819

By Charles Nicoullaud

Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne 1815 - 1819

Why this book?

Madame de Boigne describes the same period as Chateaubriand, whom she disliked, from a liberal perspective. Both had their style and mind improved by suffering during the Emigration, which also made both, for a time, feel half-English. Boigne married a French officer who had made a fortune in India, but failed to tell her he had brought back an Indian wife. She took his money and returned to live with her parents. 

Born with what she called a ‘taste for royalty and the instinct for court life’, she described salons and quarrels, royalty and revolution, Paris and England, from 1780 to 1840. Her friend Count Pozzo di Borgo, for example, she says, would have descended into hell to find enemies for Napoleon, whom he had hated since their childhood in Corsica. She blamed the long foretold revolutions of 1830 and 1848 on monarchs’ exaggerated sense of their infallibility. A genius of malice, skepticism, and cosmopolitanism.


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Les derniers feux de la monarchie

By Charles-Éloi Vial

Les derniers feux de la monarchie

Why this book?

In this dazzling panorama, using many unpublished sources, Vial brilliantly brings to life the French court as it reinvented and redefined itself after1789. Because of the feeling of insecurity generated by revolutions, coups, and invasions, Napoleon I and III, the restored Bourbons, and Louis-Philippe tried harder, through public ceremonies, court entertainments, artistic patronage, and good works, to win the popularity which they all knew they needed. In its last, and in some ways most splendid century, the French court had to decide what to retain, what to change, whom to trust and whom to invade. Only after trying many different kinds of monarchy, and suffering the military debacle of 1870-71, did the French finally, and in many cases with extreme distaste, accept a republic.


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