Mstation Book Reviews
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Thu, 27 Nov 2008

Nicholas Fouquet

Charles Drazin, The Man Who Outshone the Sun King, Da Capo Press

When I was small I remember seeing a picture of a grand house set behind what looked like a moat. The stone was golden in the dusk light. Its grace and beauty captured me and I wondered 'Who lived there? Who created such a place?'. Thus began my long love affair with France.

The name of the place was Vaux-le-Vicomte, and the man who built it and guided such as Andre le Notre was Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finance under the Sun King, Louis XIV ... and this book is his story.

The story starts off with Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII. Richelieu was to make the mold for the golden shoes that Mazarin, and later the non-Cardinal Colbert wouldn't fit into. The author's understanding of Richelieu, that of a power-mad scruple-free non-religious Cardinal, doesn't coincide with modern thought on this subject, which holds his religious beliefs to have been quite genuine. Putting them under the heading of Baroque, they were deemed to be extremely positive and not at all like the neo-Jansenism that came to be practised in many places. Anyone who has come across Irish priests will know about Jansenism.

The point of this observation is that Mazarin, under whom Fouquet worked primarily, was not a continuation of the same. He was a rather smaller and meaner version. Richelieu, with his subtlety, ruthlessness and plain brain power remained the template - one it seems, that Fouquet aimed at himself.

Fouquet's story starts in a well-connected family and proceeds through the civil service with the speed that money, connections, and his own skills and daring would have suggested. And then he flew too high and the jealous king brought him down.

His undoing was the building of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the finest house in France, and then having an extraordinarily extravagant party to officially open it. This book spends quite some time on the building of the house and the people involved with it. This is against the somewhat claustrophobic background of Louis's incessant wars and Mazarin's paranoid whinings.

What also is apparent is that statements by the duc de Saint Simon in his memoirs about Louis XIV being petulant and nasty certainly are borne out here, even though after the Fronde he could perhaps be forgiven a little jumpiness.

Although the author does talk about Fouquet's spy network, I think more could have been made of this and in particular more could have been made of his friendship with the famous Madame de Sevigne - she paid a heavy price, being questioned and put out of favour at court but remaining a steadfast though necessarily distant friend.

This period of French history was plundered by Dumas for all sorts of exciting tales. This book is another window into that time. (Baron K)

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