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Versailles by Tony Spawforth

Versailles: A Biography of a Palace - Tony Spawforth

This is mostly a social history of Versailles in the reigns of Louis XIV through Louis XVI, and as such it’s pretty interesting (though the first couple of chapters, which focus more on the architectural history of the palace, were less so to me). It answers questions such as: how did people (mostly nobility) get jobs at court, and why did they want them? How did courtiers gain access to the king? How much privacy did the monarchs and their families actually have? Did these people even bathe? (Answer: rarely, and in many cases only for medicinal purposes.)

Although it’s interesting material at a relatively short length (254 pages of text followed by endnotes) and Spawforth’s writing is perfectly readable, I still moved through it a bit slowly and wasn’t as engaged as I would have liked. This might be because I recently read a similar book about the English court at the same time – which in many ways wasn’t as different as you might expect. However, I think the real reason is that while Spawforth conveys facts well enough, he isn’t much of a storyteller: there are a lot of recurring “characters” here, mostly royalty and a handful of nobles who wrote prolifically about their life at court, but little personality emerges and there’s not much sense of what their lives were like outside the context of the specific anecdotes illustrating the author’s points.

At any rate, interesting and accessible book, but not one I’d recommend you go out of your way to find unless you have a special interest in the subject matter.