It’s impossible to slander—or, in this case, libel—the dead, but that doesn’t mean I want to perpetuate myths about a long deceased person.
Louis XVI of France has been dead for 222 years, the victim of the “hot blade,” released by revolutionaries looking to change the social, economic, and political order of their country.
I mention the unfortunate French monarch in Amelia Elkins Elkins, my newly released retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, at the end of Chapter 3, when Amelia (a modern Anne Elliot) contemplates a lawsuit on behalf of her mother’s estate:
Louis XVI has often been portrayed as weak, stupid, and lazy, stereotypes I vaguely remember learning as facts in my European History class in high school. About a decade before that class, Newsweek referred to the French king as the “stout and stupid Louis XVI.”*
Suspecting that Louis XVI is a more complicated historical figure than is often portrayed, I had originally written the sentence in Amelia Elkins Elkins slightly differently (see below). However, I revised it on the advice of an astute reader who said, “I think it’s okay to risk treating Louis XVI unfairly for the sake of comedic timing.”
I agree that the revision is better. It’s a simpler sentence now, even if — potentially — somewhat unfair to Louis XVI.
Ever since accepting that revision, I’ve wondered how unfair I’ve been to the unfortunate ruler. To shed light on this question, I read Alison Johnson’s biography of the king, Louis XVI and the French Revolution (2013), an attempt to refute common perceptions of Louis XVI’s drive and intellect.
It’s an interesting and accessible read, one that references sources we’re unlikely to see in many history books, like the Mayo Clinic’s website. Johnson’s Louis XVI is a highly-educated, family-oriented man who loathed bloodshed and privately suffered from phimosis, an often painful condition in which the foreskin cannot fully retract.
Poor guy, for so many reasons.
So, like England’s Richard III, whom I’ve discussed several times on this blog, Louis XVI has his supporters. Like most modern-day historians attempting to rehabilitate the image of a long-dead person, Johnson has embarked on a challenging task. The paucity of unbiased contemporaneous accounts of Louis XVI and the few writings left behind by the man himself are major limitations.
As Johnson explains:
I left Johnson’s book feeling more sympathetic toward Louis XVI, but still unsure of what to believe about him. What I do know, though, is that the original version of my sentence in Amelia Elkins Elkins, which doesn’t take a position on Louis XVI’s drive and intellect, is more accurate than the final one, which does.
I hope that no one offended on behalf of Louis XVI will take it out on my book. 😉
*This example is in Johnson’s book.
**Image: A portion of the cover from Louis XVI and the French Revolution (by Alison Johnson) coupled with a portion of the cover from Amelia Elkins Elkins (by moi).
***If you’re interested in Amelia Elkins Elkins, see here. Thanks!