Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2023 Issue

Louis XVI in 1790 - of Locks and Other Deadly Matters

A lot has been said and written about Louis XVI, the French king who was beheaded in 1793. Yet a brochure entitled Vie de Louis XVI (Life of Louis XVI—Londres, 1790) recently attracted my attention as it was published one year after the beginning of the Révolution (1789) and three years before his execution! Therefore, reading this sarcastic brochure was like entering a “café” in 1790, and to discuss historical events with a friendly stranger.

 

I didn’t know what to expect when I opened this anonymous brochure (By M..., the title page reads). It is “sometimes attributed to François Barbié de Bercenay (1761-1830),” Libraire Antoine from Paris writes about a copy of the second edition (London, 1790) listed on his website ($500). His copy comes with 5 engravings, and it was allegedly printed in London too—most likely in Germany, according to the National Library of Australia. Our copy is different from Libraire Antoine’s, but it’s not the first edition either as the latter was printed “à Paris” in 1790. This brochure comes in its original condition (uncut, sewed by a single thread and covered with typical blue paper boards), and it’s quite intriguing. In 1790, the Révolution had already started but Louis XVI was still the King of France. So what had this little suspicious writing in store? It didn’t take long to find out: “It seems the heat wave that was raging when his mother was pregnant, deeply influenced Louis’ character. The heat drained out and dispersed his brains, making a surly, whimsical and fickle man out of him (...). His mother, the Princess of Sax, whose etymology means “rock” or “stone”, gave him a heart as hard as a pebble.” The sarcastic tone leaves no doubt, this is a post-1789 publication.

 

This brochure is a reader’s delight. You feel like the author is actually standing next to you in a café in 1790, freely and openly discussing the affairs of the time. A modern historian would probably add hundreds of pages of footnotes to the author’s statements. Yet, the most fascinating part of his book is probably the tragic and very moving portrait he draws of Louis XVI. Under such circumstances, only a King of exception could have properly handled the situation, and Louis was everything but that. Seen as a whimsical and impotent man, he had no clear vision of the world that surrounded him. Yet he tried. “He thought that being penny-wise in his everyday life would help his country.” Sometimes, he’d spare a part of his dinner for supper. “In the meantime, one of his squires spent more, on the state’s account, in one day than what he could save in one year’s time.”

 

He was in love with his wife, but he also had a vulgar passion for forging keys and locks. “He’d retire to the attic of the castle with its window overlooking the Avenue de Paris, and there he’d struggle as a devil to forge bad keys and locks. Meanwhile, the courtesans had the passkey to the royal treasure.” As things got out of hand in the streets, Minister Brienne encouraged the King’s passion. “He used it to hold Louis prisoner in an invisible cage. They profusely poured Tokay wine into his glass to pass some dangerous acts he had never signed; the King became fat, and although he used to be thin, his belly is now bigger than his brothers’.”

 

This is relevant to the idea we have of Louis XVI nowadays: not the worst King of France, but a man lost in his own world while the kingdom was sinking. “Louis must realize,” our author concludes, “that the courtesans have dug the pit he’s currently trapped into (...); that there’s no other way to bring back peace to the kingdom but by reigning by himself.” But that was beyond his power. He took several bad decisions afterwards that eventually led him to the guillotine in January 1793. Even his own cousin, the Duc d’Orléans, voted for his death. Louis XVI, or Louis Capet, was always a lonely man, who would have probably given his kingdom for a bad lock.

 

Thibault Ehrengardt

 

  • Vie du Roi Louis XVI (Paris, 1790): 82 pages.

  • Vie de Louis XVI, Revue, corrigée & augmentée... Par M... (Londres, 1790): In 8°, half-title, title page, 88 pages.

  • Vie de Louis XVI, Revue, corrigée & augmentée... Par M... (Londres, 1790): In-12°, 125-126 pages (including Correspondance de la Reine). 5 engravings, including a frontispiece of Louis XVI and one of Marie-Antoinette.

 

Rare Book Monthly

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