The King's Way

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1736

As a legal adviser for the French Council of State, Françoise Chandernagor is familiar with historical research and documents. As a result, her re-creation of the life of Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, has an aura of authority. Chandernagor’s task of assembling Madame de Maintenon’s correspondence,...

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As a legal adviser for the French Council of State, Françoise Chandernagor is familiar with historical research and documents. As a result, her re-creation of the life of Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, has an aura of authority. Chandernagor’s task of assembling Madame de Maintenon’s correspondence, which included almost eighty volumes; the memoirs of her secretary and niece, Madame de Caylus; and the records of such royal memorists as Madame de Sévigné and Saint Simon, is monumental. In her first novel, Chandernagor succeeds masterfully in re-creating seventeenth century France in its glory and squalor. She draws a vivid portrait of court and court politics and introduces her readers to the luminaries of their day through the eyes of Madame de Maintenon, who knew everyone of importance. Consequently, as history The King’s Way (published in France in 1981 as L’Allée du roi) both informs and fascinates. As a novel, unfortunately, it fails to create a sufficiently vivid sense of its central figure and narrator, Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon, celebrated for her wit as well as her beauty. Chandernagor’s creation lacks the brilliance which her original must have possessed in order to have become the most powerful woman in France. Perhaps the author’s ambitious research overwhelmed her creative imagination; the narrative character never entirely captures the reader’s sympathetic imagination, although there is no question that the story of Madame de Maintenon and her times is thoroughly fascinating.

From its beginning, Françoise d’Aubigné’s life was improbable. She was born in 1635 in Noirt prison, where her father was an inmate. Though a member of the minor nobility, he was wildly profligate—a murderer, thief, traitor, and con artist who never troubled very much about his children. Françoise’s mother thrust her daughter upon the charity of her aunt and uncle, the Villettes, frugal Huguenots, with whom the child remained until she was nine. Early in her life, Françoise was taught her precarious social position. She was a Catholic in a Huguenot family, a girl without dowry or prospects who must make the best of her situation. By the time she was twelve, Françoise was schooled in close observation, patience, poverty, deception, and humility. Out of this was born a fierce ambition. Given the choice of entering a convent or marrying, sixteen-year-old Françoise wed Paul Scarron, a crippled, middle-aged satirist and wit. Then her second education began, for Scarron not only encouraged her reading but also introduced her to politics and Parisian society. As Madame Scarron, Françoise cultivated the social skills and contacts which later brought her to court as the governess to the royal bastards and culminated in her marriage to Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Throughout The King’s Way, politics are Machiavellian and inescapable, as parties align themselves for or against Cardinal Mazarin, the king’s favorite mistress, and much later his possible successor. Everyone and everything falls under political influence, from gaining a license to manufacture gold to having a religious preference and marrying. Emerging from Chandernagor’s novel are rationales for such momentous decisions as Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which again outlawed Protestantism in France, and his justification for continuing the War of Spanish Succession.

Important as it is, the political scene does not dominate the foreground of this novel; it remains masked by the surface monotony of daily activities: card games, chitchat, desultory gossip. Nevertheless, there is a restless sense of networks, scheming, and backbiting to attain position—all conducted in the open. There are few secrets at court. Indeed, there are few secrets in society. When rumors of her growing influence begin, Madame de Maintenon issues disclaimers of political interest. She pleads reluctance—at times ineptitude—while all along she sways the king’s judgment. A perceptive analyst and astute judge of politics, she quickly adopts a background role, giving the king credit for decisions. (Thus, she exercised power in the only way a woman could during that era.)

Instead of secular politics, the politics of religion is brought to the foreground, for its influence is pervasive. Politically powerful and corrupt, the Church exercises its authority on a broad scale under Cardinal Mazarin and then assumes a lesser role once Louis XIV comes to full authority as king. Unfortunately, religion is not directly related to morality, though some gestures are made. Too often the spiritual advisers of the powerful—including Madame de Maintenon’s—fear the wrath of their patrons more than they fear the wrath of God. Consequently, moral corruption spreads from the very highest echelons of religious and political power. Nor is religion directly related to political and social reform, except in a conviction that there is room for only one religion in France: Roman Catholicism. The retribution against stubborn Huguenots who refuse conversion leads to persecution and social upheaval. The Church’s conservative attitudes toward women (“ignorant in the eyes of the world; perfect in the eyes of God”) do not encourage education, let alone women’s participation in society.

Still, the Church and religion come to play important roles in Madame de Maintenon’s life. Knowing of her essentially moral character, the Church encourages the king to marry her, and Madame de Maintenon, discovering the spiritual emptiness of wealth and power, ardently seeks God. Her modesty, charity, and concern for the poor indicate the depth of her nature and stand out in bold relief against the prevailing social approval of extravagance and disdain for the lowborn.

The King’s Way reveals to its readers a wealth of social customs. Many are surprising, such as the requirement that a widow not attend her husband’s funeral; others remind the reader of some human improvements in the past three hundred years—specifically in the areas of child rearing and education. These two subjects arouse Madame de Maintenon’s passion, as expressed in some of the book’s finest passages. The entire era gave little thought to practices of child rearing. Indeed, most of its children (including the young Louis XIV) were sadly neglected and shabbily educated. Madame de Maintenon was particularly interested in the most humane and effective means of training children and used kindness, logic, praise, and love in her role as royal governess. Her early support of women’s education through her founding of the girls’ school at Saint-Cyr set a precedent for French culture.

Sadly, the main social focus of the time was dictated by the nobility’s extravagances. Versailles, Marly, Fontainebleau, Trianon—these architectural wonders remain as monuments to Louis XIV’s greatness. In The King’s Way, however, architecture is one mask among many. Whatever the flaws of this novel, its focus on the interplay of masks during the seventeenth century is admirable. Chandernagor brings her reader to understand the prominent role of deception in its various guises, from the great buildings, designed for the eye but with no regard for human comfort, to the role of costume. Libertines appear in modest gowns; lavish balls fool creditors and enemies. The French love of gilding the ordinary reveals a refusal to look honestly at human conditions. Having adapted to these methods, Madame de Maintenon reports them without moralizing.

Indeed, for all the words devoted to her search for God, her religious exercises, her attempts to become pious, there is little in the tone of The King’s Way to convince its readers that the narrator ever felt anything other than a cold detachment. Tone, motive, and the narrator’s reliability all present certain problems. There is in this long, rich narrative a surprising lack of tonal variety. Part of this flaw results from the fact that the work is presented as a memoir written at the end of the writer’s life. An eighty-four-year-old woman could hardly be expected to recall her love affairs or her great disappointments with the immediacy of the present. Consequently, this novel lacks the intensity of passion. Another reason for this deficiency might lie in the narrator’s motivation. The King’s Way is addressed to Madame de Maintenon’s seven-year-old niece, Marie de La Tour, to be read when she is twenty. Because the novel is to a large extent written as a cautionary tale, there might be a need for emotional restraint in order to seem credible. Cautionary tales, however, by their very nature, include extremes, especially those written expressly for women (as many have been). After reading this memoir, one suspects that Marie would not take seriously her aunt’s advice to enter a convent. Why should Marie abandon her life to God when her aunt readily admits that she found satisfaction neither in worldly success nor in God? Indeed, at the beginning of the memoir, she feels “abandoned” by God.

Doubtless this sense is contradictory, as are many of Madame de Maintenon’s words and actions. Thus, one comes to the problem of the narrator’s reliability. Although understanding the necessity of a certain degree of duplicity, what is one ultimately to believe? Was Françoise an innocent victim who, through luck and God’s will, rose to power? Or was Françoise a brilliantly perceptive manipulator who, with luck, used her wits to achieve her ends? Both characters are presented simultaneously. In presenting her narrator thus, the author fails to create emotional contact between reader and character. In the end, Françoise appears to be merely a crotchety old woman. Too late, she rebukes the king for never caring for her comfort, for never asking if she were happy, and too late she appeals to her reader’s sympathies. So careful has this narrator been to protect herself from blame that she generates a gap which cannot be bridged. Chandernagor’s Madame de Maintenon is too modest to reveal her genius, too cautious to reveal her passion. Most of all, she is too opaque to reveal her wit. Though she expresses her admiration for scintillating conversation and verbal play, she expresses herself in a very ordinary way.

The King’s Way had the potential to be a good—possibly great—biography. As fiction, however, its pretense is far too apparent. Chandernagor’s work lacks the texture of a novel; in the end, one must conclude that she has the skills of a historian, not the imagination of a novelist.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

The Atlantic. CCLIII, March, 1984, p. 132.

Kirkus Reviews. LI, December 15, 1983, p. 1262.

Library Journal. CIX, February 1, 1984, p. 191.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, March 11, 1984, p. 22.

The New Yorker. LX, April 16, 1984, p. 158.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, December 16, 1983, p. 66.

Time. CXXIII, April 2, 1984, p. 86.

World Literature Today. LVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 599.

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