Louis XV, so far as he knew them, smiled at these communists as negligible dreamers, and passed amiably from bed to bed. The court continued its reckless gambling and extravagant display; the Prince de Soubise spent 200,000 livres to entertain the King for one day; and every “progress” of his Majesty to one of his country seats cost the taxpayers 100,000 livres. Half a hundred dignitaries had their hôtels, or palaces, at Versailles or Paris, and ten thousand servants labored proudly to meet the wants and foibles of nobles, prelates, mistresses, and the royal family. Louis himself had three thousand horses, 217 carriages, 150 pages garbed in velvet and gold, and thirty physicians to bleed and purge and poison him. The royal household in one year 1751 spent 68,-000,000 livres—almost a quarter of the government’s revenue.71 The people complained, but for the most part anonymously; every year a hundred pamphlets, posters, satirical songs displayed the King’s unpopularity. “Louis,” said one brochure, “if you were once the object of our love, it was because your vices were still unknown to us. In this kingdom, depopulated because of you, and given over as a prey to the mountebanks who rule with you, if there are Frenchmen left, it is to hate you.”72
What had led to this transformation of Louis le Bien-Aimé into a despised and insulted king? He himself, aside from his extravagance, negligence, and adulteries, was not quite as bad as vengeful history has painted him. He was physically handsome, tall, strong, capable of hunting all afternoon and entertaining women at night. His educators had spoiled him; Villeroi had given him to understand that all France belonged to him by inheritance and divine right. The pride of sovereignty was moderated and confused by the shadow and tradition of Louis XIV; the young King was obsessed and made timid by a sense of his inability to meet that august standard of grandeur and will; he became incapable of resolution, and gladly left decisions to his ministers. His boyhood reading and his tenacious memory gave him some acquaintance with history, and he acquired in time a considerable knowledge of European affairs; through many years he kept his own secret diplomatic correspondence. He was languidly intelligent, and judged well and mercilessly the character of the men and women about him. He could keep pace with the best minds in his court in conversation and wit. But apparently he accepted even the most absurd dogmas of the theology that Fleury had poured into his youth. Religion became an intermittent fever with him as he alternated between piety and adultery. He suffered from fear of death and hell, but gambled on absolution in articulo mortis. He halted the persecution of the Jansenists, and in retrospect we perceive that thephilosophes,on and off, enjoyed considerable leeway in his reign.
He was sometimes cruel, but more often humane. Pompadour and Du Barry learned to love him for himself as well as for the power he gave them. His coldness and taciturnity were part of his shyness and self-distrust; behind that reserve lay elements of tenderness, which he expressed especially in his affection for his daughters; these loved him as a father who gave them everything except good example. Usually his manners were gracious, but at times he was callous, and talked too calmly about the ailments or approaching death of his courtiers. He quite forgot to be a gentleman in his abrupt dismissals of d’Argenson, Maurepas, and Choiseul; but that too may have been the result of diffidence; he found it hard to say no to a man’s face. Yet he could face danger bravely, as in the hunt or at Fontenoy.
Dignified in public, he was pleasant and sociable with his intimate friends, preparing coffee for them with his own anointed hands. He observed the complex etiquette that Louis XIV had established for royalty, but he resented the formalism that it laid upon his life. Often he rose before the official lever, and made his own fire so as not to awaken the servants; more often he lingered in bed till eleven. At night, after having been put to bed with the official coucher, he might slip away to enjoy his mistress or even to visit, incognito, the town of Versailles. He avoided the artificialities of the court by hunting; on those days when he did not run off to the chase the courtiers said, “The King is doing nothing today.”73 He knew more about his hounds than about his ministers. He thought that his ministers could take care of matters better than he could; and when he was warned that France was moving toward bankruptcy and revolution, he comforted himself with the thought that “les choses, comme elles sont, dureront autant que moi”(things as they are will last through my time).74
Sexually he was a monster of immorality. We can forgive him the mistress that he took when the Queen was oppressed by his virility; we can understand his fascination with Pompadour, and his sensitivity to the beauty and grace and bright vivacity of women; but there is little in royal history so despicable as his serial passage through the girls prepared for his bed in the Parc aux Cerfs. The coming of Du Barry was, by comparison, a return to normalcy.