The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée is a complex historical novel with a myriad of intrigue and conspiracy swirling around Louis XIV, the famed Sun King. It’s a novel full of the movers and shakers of the 17th Century, from the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, his mother Anne of Austria, the Cardinal Mazarin, Minister of Finance Colbert, and Superintendent Fouquet with cameos by Moliere and even Charles Perrault, the author of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other fairy tales.
Like a sheep among wolves, there is poor Gabriel Pontbriand, a lowly fictional character who comes to Paris to escape an overbearing uncle and be an actor. He is in love with Louise de La Vallière, though of course he does not know it. He literally trips over the key to secrets that could bring down the state and so much more, secrets that people have killed to get, including a cipher with the key to The Secret, a document guarded for centuries by a secret society.
The novel would be better named The Sun King Conspiracies because there is not one person who is not part of one of several conspiracies. There is the Queen and Mazarin’s conspiracy about the parentage of King Louis. There is Colbert’s conspiracy against Fouquet and every other person who is not Colbert. There are the religious zealots conspiring against Mazarin and Colbert. And of course, there is Fouquet’s grand conspiracy with the members of a secret society to guard The Secret and with its power change the course of history.
The best historical novels are those about people and times of which the readers know very little. Certainly, the less you know, the more you will enjoy The Sun King Conspiracy. It’s not that it is not grounded in history. It is. There are conversations that come right out Madame de Montespan’s memoirs, a sort of Real Housewives of Versailles score-settling memoir of one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. However, their interpretation of history leaves a lot to be desired. This is sort of an opposite-day history.
The novel takes seriously the wild theory that Louis XIV is the son of Cardinal Mazarin and not Louis XIII. It’s a ridiculous theory and ignores that Louis XIII and Anne were reconciled after yet another uprising when Richelieu convinced him that if he did not get an heir the uprisings and problems would continue. This speculation exists because some people insist Louis XIII was gay and would not sleep with his wife. He was bisexual, he had affairs with men and women. He understood the need for an heir and did his duty for an heir and a spare.
For me, the greatest problem was the authors’ decision to make Jean-Baptiste Colbert into such a cardboard villain, he only lacked a long mustache to twist with his fingers. No one who achieved his level of power was an innocent, the road to power is full of compromises and moral ambiguity. But, Colbert was one of the truly great bureaucrats of all time.
Colbert was not the flamboyant and charismatic sort of character that gets to be heroic. He was too busy working. Less famous than Richelieu and Mazarin, he mattered because of his competence in restoring the balance of trade, building new industries, investing in the infrastructure of France, and hauling France off the cliff of bankruptcy. He also codified the laws, and expanded and supported the colonization of Canada and Louisiana, even promoting the “Daughters of the King” whose transport to Canada was paid by the King to encourage colonization and expansion rather than just trade.
And while Colbert was a typical 17th century European and did not work to ban slavery or promote abolition, he did write the Black Code that guaranteed certain human rights to slaves, including one day off a week, adequate food and clothing, and the right to marry. It prohibited slave owners from raping women slaves. It prohibited separating families, defined a way to earn freedom and mandated other conditions utterly unlike American chattel slavery. Freed slaves also had the same rights as other subjects. It is why New Orleans had so many free people of color, people who earned their freedom under Colbert’s Black Code. And yes, from the eyes of today, it is all horrible and inexcusable, but for its time, it was a remarkably humane document.
So Colbert is the villain.
In contrast, Nicolas Fouquet is heroic, a patron of the arts, generous and pious and wonderful. However, in reality while he was Superintendent of Finance, he mingled his personal finances with the royal finances so thoroughly they could not be untangled. This was common. Richelieu and Mazarin enriched themselves as well. Surely Colbert did, too. But Fouquet’s conspicuous consumption in building Vaux-le-Vicomte, the inspiration for Versailles, was his downfall. You don’t show up the King. In the novel, he is presented as purely innocent of any inurement, though certainly the leader of the central conspiracy.
While the novel portrays Fouquet as a patron of the arts, he was more a personal collector of the arts for his benefit while Colbert founded many Royal Academies that continue to this day. He gave many writers a settlement enough to support them in their work, independent of the need to seek further patronage. For someone who has done so much good in his life, whose ideas about national economic development, banking and finance informed Alexander Hamilton and was a basis of our own system in the United States, it is sad to see him cast as the villain, but I suppose if you’re going to make Fouquet a good guy, there is no other option.
The Sun King Conspiracy was disappointing, not just in its historical revisionism, but also in the central plot. There was a conflict in France between the clergy and the aristocracy, it was not a conflict between oppression and liberty. The actual Secret was silly and disappointing. I expected more and kept reading in hopes that there would be a great Dan Brown sort of payoff, but there was not. Sure, I see the Dan Brown inspiration, but if you’re going to hide a secret until the next to last chapter, it better be a good one.
This book is going to be much more enjoyable for people who have studied not history, who won’t have an inner “So Wrong!” sounding in their head while they read. If it were just a story about something I knew nothing about I would probably like it better. It’s a translation from French and who knows, perhaps the French view Colbert differently than those who studied him because of his profound influence on Canada and the United States.
I received a digital edition of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.