Versailles: The Dream of a King (BBC version)

Here is a link to this program (available only from the UK.) I just watched it and found it very different from the French original. First the emphasis here is not on the palace itself, but on the character of Louis XIV. Also the dramatization is constantly interrupted by various popular British historians. The result is a string of beautiful snippets from the French version, with talking heads popping in to comment at regular intervals. The sense of continuity that makes the French version such a pleasure to watch is completely lost.

Marie Therese of Spain Queen of France

Marie Therese of Spain Queen of France

As for the scholarly quality of the commentary, it left somewhat to be desired. In particular, Lady Antonia Fraser remarked that Louis XIV’s many affairs incarnated the country’s sense of its own virility, something in which Louis XVI would, by contrast, have failed.

This was – rightly – contradicted some time later by another historian, Lisa Hilton, who noted that the very public and doubly adulterous liaison between the King and Madame de Montespan was considered scandalous by the vast majority of the contemporaries. Indeed one of the reasons why Louis XVI remained extremely popular well into the French Revolution was his faithfulness to Marie-Antoinette. French people always hated royal mistresses, and they appreciated their absence during his reign.

But I disagree with Ms. Hilton on many other points. She says, for instance, that Louis XIV was not interested in his wife because she was not attractive. In fact, Queen Marie-Therese (left) was blonde, fair and plump, with regular features, which conformed to the standards of female beauty of her time. But she was undeniably dull, and the Sun King did not enjoy dull people or things.

Ms. Hilton also asserts that Louis XIV was “on the short side,” which would have explained the fashion of – moderately high – heels for men’s footwear. Again this is not true. Louis XIV was 1.75 meters by modern metric measurements, several inches above the average height for adult men at the time. Physically not a towering figure, but most definitely tall.

Marquise de Maintenon

Marquise de Maintenon

When it comes to Madame de Maintenon (right) the usual cliches are trotted out. Even the language tells of thinly disguised animosity: Louis XIV “fell” under her influence, she had him in her “grip.” She turned the King into a devout man, and thus darkened the atmosphere at Versailles during last years of the reign.

On the contrary, Louis XIV had always been deeply religious, and he saw this second marriage as the opportunity to reconcile at last his ravenous sexual appetites and his conscience. Madame de Maintenon assumed, as the King’s uncrowned wife, an extraordinarily difficult position, and fulfilled its duties for many decades with patience, intelligence and devotion. She can hardly be blamed for the horrendous string of deaths in the royal family that struck Louis XIV at the end of his reign.

The commentary mentions that, at the time of Louis XIV’s agony, she left discreetly for “a convent.” Sure, it was a convent, but not just any convent: it was the beloved school she had founded, the Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr, probably the best and most prestigious institution of female education in France under the Ancien Regime. But the film would not even acknowledge that achievement of hers.

So, in a nutshell, this Dream of a King is a mixed bag: watch it for the beautiful costumes and scenery, much of it shot on location at Versailles, and take the commentary with a grain (well, make it a shovelful) of salt.

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27 Comments to “Versailles: The Dream of a King (BBC version)”

  1. Tiffany says:

    @ hugh dickinson : I saw that version of this documentary on SBS as well. It was beautiful. I wonder whether, if I contact them, they would be able to sell it or atleast tell us where to find it. I NEED to see it again XD.

  2. Ree says:

    Drat…What can we do to have this most interesting looking program shown in the US?…I’t looks marvelous…

  3. Heya! Thank you for the great writing style. Stay the best! ;)

  4. Source: Simone Bertiere, Les Femmes du Roi-Soleil. Louis XIV, based on his medical records, was 5’4 (mesure de Paris, of course). In 1800 the average height for a male was 5″2, and it had risen since the time of Louis XIV. So yes indeed, Louis XIV was taller than average.
    As for other parts of his anatomy, I make no representations whatsoever. As you know, he had many, many of mistresses. Which one do you refer to?

  5. Rose from Norway says:

    “Louis XIV was 1.75 meters by modern metric measurements, several inches above the average height for adult men at the time.”

    I will need a link to support that last statement..

    “Several inches”..? Ok, that is at least three inches. Three inches is 7.6 centimeters. Average height for men at the time was not 167 cm (around 5,6)!

    So yes, Louis XIV was a short man. His mistress also said he was short in another part of his anatomy..

  6. Zoe says:

    Hi, I would like to add my appreciation for your blog.
    You write above about the height of Louis XIV. You might like to look at these sources about the French system of measurement before 1799:
    The French royal foot was 32.48 cm; a “pouce” was 2.707 cm.
    « Louis XIV était grand, même très grand par rapport à ses contemporains. Il mesurait cinq pieds huit pouces, c’est-à-dire 1,84 m. »

    So he was a little over 6 foot tall (1.84m) apparently.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Great you were able to watch and enjoy the French version! Really an excellent production all around.

  8. hugh dickinson says:

    Just watched it on SBS {Special broadcasting services. Australia} French version with subtitles narration by Australian voice good well trained voice and clear{Only one} continuity excellent.Beautiful production. Some of these historical and other production from UK where people pop up here there and everywhere is irratating. Some of the voices in modern England leave much to be desired some of these newer/younger people need elocution lessons and voice training. Thank goodness SBS didn’t buy the UK version and shame on the BBC.whats been happening in recent years!?

  9. sarahbelll says:

    I just like the approach you took with this subject. It’s not typical that you find a subject so to the point and informative.

  10. Jessica Donovan says:

    I would be honoured to help out with your blog entry on Marie Therese. I have already done some readings for it and have several sources already, including her funeral sermon.

    As for the dissertation, I have only just started my Masters degree and the finished product shall be ready mid-2012.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Congratulations, Jessica! A great subject. Marie-Therese’s portraits in particular are very interesting. I have long planned a blog post on this ignored Queen and would be delighted to have your opinion when the time comes.

    This is a portrait of the young Queen, painted around the time of her marriage, in 1660, by the Beaubrun brothers. And it can be admired at Versailles. For more details, see the entry at Reunion des Musees Nationaux:

    Best of luck for your dissertation!

  12. Jessica Donovan says:

    I would like to have more information in regards to the portrait of Marie Therese of France that you have attached to this particular entry.

    If you could please tell me where you got it from, that would be wonderful. I also need the artist, year of creation, title, medium and current location.

    I am completing a Masters dissertation on Marie Therese and I am going to use her portraits to illustrate her life and position as queen.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Dear Ms. Hilton, I agree, but these feet and inches were of course “mesure de Paris.” The English measurement system was not in use at Versailles. See a related discussion on Bonaparte, which was definitely shorter (probably in relative terms as well, given the improvement of the standard of living in Francve over the 18th century) at five feet two:

  14. Lisa Hilton says:

    Louis XIV was five feet four inches tall, not 1.75m. I refer you to the “Journal de la Sante du Roi” for his vital statistics.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Un grand merci! I found it on Dailymotion, added a link to this post, and posted a new entry.

  16. If it’s still up (I’m having trouble with the site at the moment), the entire French production had been uploaded on a year ago which is where I saw it for the first time. You might want to check there under Versailles: Le reve d’un roi.

    Like Catherine says, it’s really a wonderful production and gives a good background to the construction of the palace. What’s really interesting are the computer-generated images of Versailles as it progressed architecture-wise from the simple hunting pavillion of Louis XIII to his son’s immense royal estate. As an added advantage, much of it was shot inside the actual chateau, and with the actors in pretty accurate costumes, it truly gives a sense of the scale of the rooms and the overall cadre of life at court under louis XIV.

  17. Penny says:

    ah Madame Catherine, i wish i knew french and could see either version. but i am here exploring california’s norhtern and central cities and towns. strange places too.
    amities from crispy fried Penny(lake tahoe trip)
    by the way i have france 24 on my home tv but the newscasters speak the queen’s english. the website claims they are french with a paris address. but the queen’s english on the telly???
    i guess no news is good news. so i will just take a bath and go to bed

  18. Penny says:

    I am in Sacramento now but appreciate your review. the book i am reading on the building of Versailles states it was discovered while Louis XIII and future Louis XIV were stag hunting and found themselves there. and of course Louis XIV brought mistresses there to keep secret from mama and wife. even though they must have known. he had such a prodigious appetitie for women.
    by the way if you come to Brooklyn in 2011, you will see the flowers adorning the portraits you have displayed and i took. i am a nice crispy fried Penny right now from my trip on a boat on Lake Tahoe. no gambling just finishing up Tartuffe. Great read. the censorship sounds like it could happen here in america. i am in a expensive hotel in the california capitol where the governator stays but will be moving on in 1 and half days. more little mining towns i think. San Francisco was the best. i left my heart there once again. Nancy seemed pleased i went out alone. so i am getting some confidence to explore. one day I must cross the pond and explore there. is it true what the guide says about England and France in mutual hatred? Sarkozy just included england in the financial disaster blame game. it is just plain sad.

  19. Judy says:

    Thank you very much, Catherine – I’ll add your blog to my blogroll too:)

  20. Catherine Delors says:

    And, Judy, I just discovered your blog and will add it to my blogroll. I love costume dramas (good ones, that is.)

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Judy, it would have been so much better to show the French version unedited. Subtitles, or dubbing, would have done just fine, and would have left more time for the beautiful visuals.

  22. Judy says:

    Catherine, it’s fascinating to see your take on both versions, and I’m very glad to learn that the original French version is so much better than what the BBC treated us to in the UK – I felt that it must be, looking at the quality of the acting and the beautiful costumes and sets. I’m interested to hear that some of Lady Antonia’s comments were misleading as well as intrusive. I do wish it could have been shown here without the extra talking heads.

  23. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Lucy, if you have a multi-standard DVD player and TV (I know it’s a big IF) it might be worth getting the French version from Amazon. After watching this one, I liked it still better.

  24. Lucy says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post Catherine- and- thank you for setting all those points straight! I can’t imagine all these falsities in the same documentary. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t watch it (although I tried with the same results as Sandra). I might have liked it though just for the costumes and the setting, but in terms of accuracy, it would have probably gotten on my nerves…

  25. Catherine Delors says:

    Ah Sandra, all too true… I will amend the post to warn of this. It is so sad that you can’t watch either version (though the loss is by far the greater for the French version.) I liked, by the way, the manner in which the latter showed the relationship between a youthful Louis and Louise de La Valliere.

  26. Excellent post, Catherine. I only wish I could watch it! When I click on the link I’m told “Currently BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only.” I’m in Canada. Where is the Commonwealth when I need it!

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