THE effulgent epoch of the Sun King Louis XIV was surely the high noon of the French monarchy; many historians regard his reign as the meridian of French culture. For the women of France, and much of Europe, the era was rather a sunrise, and a brief one, according to Louis Auchincloss in this pleasant collection of linked essays designed for the amateur of history rather than the scholar. While he may have called it False Dawn partly as a salute to his revered biographee Edith Wharton (it's the name of one of her novellas), this title does announce his initial thesis: that women then had unprecedented opportunities for influence, independence and even authority, unequaled until the 20th century.
"Madame de S,evign,e," "Mary of Modena," "The Duchess of Marlborough," "Queen Christina" -- a glance at the contents page suggests that the subtitle may be misleading since the chapters are character sketches not only of French women but English, Swedish, German and Italian as well; furthermore, nationality is often confused by foreign marriages or careers. The French-born Princesse des Ursins, for example, married an Italian nobleman and later became adviser to the young Queen of Spain. Nevertheless, with the partial exception of Queen Christina and Sophia of Hanover, all these women were deeply affected, their lives largely determined, by Louis XIV in his various roles as cousin, lover, husband, patron, ally or enemy. The active life spans of these ladies, moreover, and the major events in which they were involved, were all bounded by the dates of Louis' birth and death: 1638-1715. It would have been careless and procrustean to have called them "Women of the Seventeenth Century." Wherever they lived, they did indeed flourish or fade in response to "the far-spreading rays of the Sun King."
"An international pest" was Winston Churchill's brusque assessment of this grand monarch. Churchill had little patience with those French leaders of any century, even if brave allies, who exemplified the Gallic code of gloire which to Anglo-Saxons often seems to be patriotism without perspective, pride without proportion. Louis XIV is the incarnation of gloire and though Auchincloss concedes the grandoise artistic glories of that reign -- Corneille's drama, Versailles -- he condemns what he describes, perhaps unfairly, as the primary component of gloire: "the thrill of trampling on one's neighbors for the pleasure of trampling." Louis' purpose was not to wade in blood, of course (he was not a barbarian), but to have others under his elegant, high, scarlet heel.
Most of the neighbors were adjacent countries -- Italy, Spain, the German states, the Netherlands -- and the trampling was political or military, e.g. the gratuitous War of the Spanish Succession. But there was also inglorious domestic trampling, like the treason conviction of Finance Minister Fouquet, essentially for l for outshining this Apollo by building the magnificent Vaux-le-Vicomte. Naturally here Auchincloss is more concerned with Louis' less lethal and, considering his reputation for politesse, more surprising cruelties: his callousness toward his queen and mistresses, his persecution of the Jansenist nuns of Port-Royale, his extortion from his devoted cousin of a large fortune before freeing her imprisoned lover. He seems to have regarded women, at least until his second marriage, as objects of pure exploitation for love or money. And even the wise and devout Madame de Maintenon served largely as an instrument in his final attempt at conquest, that of God.
Auchincloss says of Louis, "He might have raised his hat gallantly to a chambermaid, but he did not regard women as having a role to be noted in the serious business of life. The strides that women made towards emancipation in his reign were with no help from him."
Alas, the "strides that women made towards emancipation in his reign" vastly overstates the case. Every lady depicted here is titled -- even the two nuns are abbesses -- and most are queens. High rank and wealth usually liberate those who possess them, male or female, but even the most powerful queens -- Cleopatra and Hathepsut, Elizabeth and Victoria -- did little to raise the status of their female subjects. Moreover, while a few of the women are remarkable for their wisdom, wit, charm or will (almost all of these are French except for the spectacular Sarah Churchill), the majority, like Mary II, Anne and Mary of Modena, would have no place in history but for the ranks they inherited or married. The great talent of Abigail Hill (heroine of a 1983 novel Exit Lady Masham by this same prolific author) seems to be that she was a skilled masseuse. Fame was thrust on many. Queen Anne, a Niobe of 17 dead children, found her position a sacred duty but a heavy burden. Finally, in almost any century one could find a dozen or so women whom high birth and vitality "emancipated."
While the False Dawn thesis is thus unconvincing, this is not important to the book since all these lives are interesting and recounted with urbanity. With generosity and affection, as well -- although Auchincloss finds Madame de Montespan ruthless, Mary II disappointing and Sarah Churchill exasperating, he concedes their verve and glamour; he shows Queen Anne and Lady Masham and Madame de Lafayette as unexciting, but he conveys their goodness. Moreover, as the feminist False Dawn theme falters, another emerges which is equally important and relevant to our time: the contrast between those determined to achieve gloire, political r personal, who are usually gifted and arrogant -- Montespan, Sarah, Christina and Louis himself -- and those others who are less egocentric and who are concerned with promoting peace and stability -- Queen Anne, Madame de Maintenon and the Princesse des Ursins. Bellona is splendid in helmet and arms; the Amazon Hippolyta, the warrior queen Boadicea, and the duchesses of the Fronde are all like Corneille heroines and stir the blood, but blessed are the peacemakers.