Louis XIV did not take kindly to the sugges - tion that he was in thrall to women. When an illustrated satire of 1694 depicted him in chains in front of four of his mistresses, Louis had the printer, the bookseller and his boy assistant hanged. He wished to be remembered as a great king who enhanced the power of France, yet Antonia Fraser's entrancing study of the ladies he loved shows him in a far more appealing light than other works that focus on his relentless quest for glory.
Louis was married in June 1660 to the Spanish princess Marie-Thérèse, who was reasonably attractive by royal standards but too limited intellectually to satisfy his tastes. One contemporary observed that it was the queen's mis- fortune that Louis seemed to love all women save his own wife. Given that ladies of the court were encouraged by their families to make themselves available to him, he had many opportunities to gratify his desires.
The king's first mistress was the gentle and retiring Louise de la Vallière. After she had borne him several children, she found herself supplanted by a woman she had once considered a friend, Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan. With her voluptuous beauty and enchanting wit, Athénaïs was in many ways a more fitting partner for the Sun King than her unassuming predecessor. Unfortunately she was also a married woman. Unlike many courtiers, her husband did not condone his wife's becoming a royal mistress, and eventually had to be sent into exile so that Louis and Athénaïs could continue their affair unmolested.
The king still slept with other women ("Nothing came amiss to him so long as it was female," his sister-in-law noted), but for years Athénaïs lorded it over the court as maîtresse en titre. Her position was more precarious than it seemed, however. In contrast to his contem porary, Charles II of England, who took the cheerful view that God would never damn a fellow for a little pleasure, Louis was haunted by a sense of sin. As he grew older, his awareness that his extramarital involvements might condemn him to everlasting torment became more pressing, and ensured that the second half of his life followed a very different pattern.
In 1679, Louis embarked on an affair with a 17-year-old maid of honour, Marie-Angélique, Duchesse de Fontanges, renowned for being "beautiful as an angel, stupid as a mule". This, however, was Louis's last amorous adventure. When the duchess fell ill after suffering a miscarriage, contemporaries whispered that Madame de Montespan must have poisoned her. Yet the poor girl's death in June 1681 did not restore Athénaïs's supremacy. Instead, her place in the king's affections was taken by a woman whom Athénaïs had never imagined might pose a threat to her.
Years earlier, when Athénaïs had needed a governess to look after her illegitimate offspring by the king, she had enlisted the aid of an impoverished but respectable widow whom she had met in Parisian salon society. Sensible, pious and discreet, Madame de Maintenon seemed perfectly qualified to oversee the children's upbringing, but in employing her Athénaïs had made a disastrous error. The king found himself drawn towards a woman whose conversation enthralled him, even when she "talked to him only of virtue". She in turn became convinced it was her destiny to save Louis's soul. While it is unclear whether she achieved this by permitting him to sleep with her, Fraser thinks her remark that the king "would have looked for his pleasures elsewhere if he had not found them with me" indicates that she sacrificed her virtue for a higher purpose around 1682.
The following year, the queen died unexpectedly. Amazingly, despite his obsession with prestige and status, Louis rejected the idea of contracting a dynastic alliance with a European princess in favour of a secret morganatic union with his children's former governess. Although it lasted more than 30 years, the marriage was never officially acknowledged. It is an extraordinary story, even if Madame de Maintenon herself did not see it as a fairy tale come true. Her letters were full of complaints about life at Versailles, and she moaned about having to submit to the king's sexual attentions even in her seventies. Yet, although Louis apologised to her on his deathbed for his failure to make her happy, he never doubted the wisdom of taking her as his spouse.
"We are not individuals," Louis told his daughter-in-law on one occasion, but Fraser's account of the king's private life proves otherwise. Her delightful book supports the contemporary observation that "court life provides the funniest scenes imaginable", but the scintillating narrative is underpinned by a serious theme, arising from the conflict between the king's sex drive and his search for salvation. Ultimately, Louis succeeded in reconciling his love of women with his love of God - but, as Fraser engagingly shows, he managed to have a great deal of fun along the way.
Anne Somerset is the author of "The Affair of the Poisons: murder, infanticide and satanism at the court of Louis XIV" (Phoenix)