Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Copyright Â© 1981 by Louis Auchindoss
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
The cat and the king.
1. Louis XIV, King of France, 1638â1715âFiction. 2. Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de, 1675â1755âFiction. I. Title.
3 813'.54 80-20884
For Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,
who persuaded me that Versailles
was still a valid source for fiction
“A cat may look at a king.”
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â âOld proverb
YEAR AGO TODAY,
the fifteenth of October, 1749, was the most important day of my now stretched-out life, even more so than the day of my wedding, or that of my sainted father's death, when I became the second due de Saint-Simon. For it was the day on which I completed my memoirs and put away the thousands of pages of my manuscript, wrapped in eleven calfskin portfolios, each stamped with my arms, in a leather chest, to await the time, probably long after my own demise, when my heirs or representatives should deem the political and social climate appropriate for their publication. Of course, I realize that that era may never come, or if it does, that no printer may be found who is prepared to undertake so massive and costly a project. And I must also face the possibility that these portfolios, securely as I intend to have them kept, may succumb to the hazards of fire or of vandals, or may simply be destroyed or thrown away by an irresponsible descendant or a malicious or careless servant. These hazards are great, and yet I have a curiously intense, small faith burning somewhere deep within meâand which must have burned, at least to some degree, during all the years when I toiled to correlate and edit the millions of notes jotted down almost daily since the time I first came to Versaillesâthat these memoirs will survive to illuminate the reign of Louis XIV to generations unborn.
Has any writer, I wonder, since the beginning of time, labored so long and so arduously for a purely posthumous reward? I doubt it. But these memoirs have already fulfilled a function for me, even if they are never published. They have provided me, to put it at its simplest, with a life. They have given me a self-respect that no accomplishment or position at court could ever have given me. They have enabled me to cope with the elusive world around me by grasping it, so to speak, by the tail and smacking it down on my desk, like a flapping, slithering fish. I have been able to stand back and glare at that world over my manuscript and say: “So! You thought me small, petty, obsessed with rank and etiquette, a paper soldier, a cardboard dukeâoh, yes, you did, I've had my eyes on you!âbut what you never comprehended was that form and substance cannot be separated and that when you gave up the former, as in your greed, your laziness and your subservience to the king and his ministers you did, you lost the other! Yes! The king squeezed you dry. Like a sponge!”
And by the time, if ever, that these memoirs are read, it will be seen that what I have said is true. And if they are never read, they will still be true, for they and I will have existed together in a moment of truth. Sometimes I have wondered if Versailles had a reality outside my pages, and my pages a reality outside Versailles. But put the two together, and there has to be something, whether my Versailles be an illusion or my work be unread. Somehow the link between them must have something to do with fact. Such, anyway, has been my faith.
And that is why I have labored to set down the pageant of the palace, day by day, season by season. I wanted my readers in the future to be able to imagine themselves in the great gallery or in the Oeil de Boeuf, or at the
of the king. As it is impossible to tell what details of our daily life will survive into the future, it has been necessary, even at the risk of boring some readers, to set down the seemingly trivial details.
It might seem to my generation, for example, that no schoolchild of the future could fail to have heard about Louis XIV, or Madame de Maintenon, or the marÃ©chal de Villars, or the comte de Pontchartrain. But have I not heard a young niece of my wife's confuse Louise de la ValliÃ¨re with Madame de Montespan? And did not another describe Philippe V of Spain as a Hapsburg? No, one cannot exaggerate the rapid eclipse of the past for the young. I even sometimes wonder if the reputation of the sovereign whom we like to call the “Sun King” will not depend, in some part at least, on the survival of my leather chest.
But there was still something else behind my labors. Yes, I would not have worked all those years just for posterity, or even just for the joy of writing, or even, as I say, for a life of my own. No, my memoirs have been also a kind of guarantee of sanity. When I felt that I had not fathomed the characters of those who were nearest and dearest to meâmy mother, my wife, my closest friendsâwhen I felt myself alone in a world populated by different speciesâdifferent from each other, different from meâthen I could make sense out of madness only by setting down persons and events in some kind of sequential chain. Or perhaps I set them down to see if I could discover such a chain. If there were no apparent order, or even truth, might not this at least be revealed in my pages?
And now that my memoirs are finished, I find that I cannot bear the loss of my occupation in writing them. I find that I always have more to say, that I must go on and on. So what I propose to myself now to do is to isolate from my gross material the events that I think have most borne on my writing of the memoirs. It seems to me that if there has been one guiding principle in my life, it has been the search for virtue: virtue in men, virtue in France, virtue in the history of France. My belief in the existence of such virtue has survived the most grievous disillusionments. Some of these have been almost sharp enough to induce me to abandon the memoirs, unless it could be argued that it was precisely such disillusionments that have most ordained their continuance. If virtue is threatened, if virtue is said not to exist, can it not be saved, or even brought into existence, by a writing that contains
of one man's passion for it?
And so I have decided that what I should do now is to make a record of the thing that above all else I had resolved to keep out of my memoirsânamely, myself. By that I mean myself as a mixed bag of emotions and contradictions, of fears and ideals and irritations. Of course, I already figure prominently in my memoirsâhow could I not have?âbut I tend to appear in them only as an observer and analyst. I am never ill, for example, unless illness is necessary to explain an absence. I am never angry, except where anger is required by some outrageous social pretension. I am never a man in love, except insofar as my marriage is a necessary part of my post of observer. But now I am going to allow myself to be more personal. I am going to allow myself to write about the due de Saint-Simon writing his memoirs.
he wrote them.
You see, reader (if you exist), that I suffer from considerable confusion. I say I wrote my memoirs to live. That I wrote them to teach. That I wrote them to save my sanity. That I wrote them to prove that virtue exists! You will have to resolve the true answer for yourself.
just where I want to begin. I want to begin with my first major disillusionment at court, which occurred when the due de Chartres was made to marry the king's bastard daughter. But before starting on this it may be well if I said something about my own domestic life, which constituted, in my mind anyway, so sharp a contrast to the looseness of the court.
Let me start with my wife, which means that I am really starting with my mother.
My father died in 1693, when he was eighty-six and I but eighteen. As the only child of my widowed mother I took for granted that I would be precious to her, that I would supply her not only with the love and devotion that every woman must have but with the guidance and protection that a helpless female must look for in court. Mother and I had not only our chÃ¢teau, La FertÃ©, in Normandy and the estate in Poitou; we had the
in Paris and the smaller one in Versailles, necessary for the increasing hours of attendance at court on which the king set such store. We had a number of sources of revenue, but payments were irregular and we had a large number of dependents and many incidental expenses. We should indeed have been constantly hard up without expert management, and I did not see how I was to handle it all and still serve in the army in the Flanders and German campaigns.
It was at this point in my life that I came to learn the true steel of my mother's character. She made it entirely clear that she had no need or desire for a separate establishment and that she would be happy to administer my properties and run my households, even after my marriage, an event which she seemed most anxious to promote. She suggested that I, as a duke-peer, should occupy the Versailles house and that she would stay on in Paris. When I pointed out that the Paris hÃ´tel was many times as large and as splendid as the modest edifice in Versailles, she asked me point blank if I wanted her to live in a shack!
Mother got her way in everything, even after I married. My wife very wisely made the point that letting her occupy the larger quarters, whether in town or country, was a small price to pay for not having her under the same roof. I was a bit startled that Gabrielle should put the matter quite so bluntly, but I soon came to appreciate her point of view. Mother was perfectly agreeableâso long as she got whatever she wanted. That may sound obvious, but it's not. I have known plenty of women, including the great Madame de Maintenon, the king's morganatic spouse, who are capable of being bad-tempered even when everything is going their way. So I had Gabrielle to thank for a modus vivendi that worked very well for Mother and ourselves for four decades. We paid a lot for it, but we got what we had bargained for: domestic peace.
I suppose Mother's trouble was that she had no spontaneous maternal warmth. Or perhaps I was not the child to inspire it. She had never had much feeling, beyond respect and duty, for a husband so much older than herself, and she had accepted his demise with grave composure. Her happiness consisted in careful housekeeping, rigid supervision of servants, and gossip. She was always so serious, so flat and direct in her perceptions and curiosities, so deliberate and dry in her manner, that it was sometimes difficult, seeing her with her lady friends, not to suppose that they were discussing matters of theological or political import. But coming within earshot one always found the subject the same: the latest and most highly seasoned bit of court scandal straight from the great gallery. But I must not be too hard on her, for she has provided me with much raw material.