on 26 October 2003
By means of focusing on a particular series of incidents, known as the Affair of the Poisons, Anne Somerset has written one of the most penetrating studies of Louis XIV ever published. The wave of hysteria and scandal which broke over the court of Versailles in 1677 starred a Rogues' Gallery of Poisoners, Blackmailers, Devil-Worshippers, Witches, Torturers and Cruel Inquisitors which makes the events portrayed in the Witches of Salem seem like an episode from a tea-party. The most fascinating thread in this history as written by Anne Somerset is the insight which the author gives us into the character and methods of Louis XIV. She describes and lays bare the mixture of superstitious vacillation and guilt-ridden indecision with which Louis dealt with an affair which implicated those closest to him in affection and family. This not the usual bland picture of the Sun King's magnificence, unerring powers of judgement and political genius. When we consider that Somerset's portrait of the King, although admittedly in cameo form, is competing with the works of Saint Simon, Madame De Sevigne, Voltaire and more recently, Nancy Mitford - among many others - this book is a very considerable triumph of scholarship and historical writing. As a bonus, The Affair of the Poisons is full of the highly enjoyable blend of sly wit and analytical clarity with which Anne Somerset has made her reputation as a scholar and historian - and it has the hallucinatory cinematic quality of Patrick Suskind's great novel, Perfume.
The Affair Of The Poisons is the rarest of historical works: one which reads like a compulsively page-turning thriller; and yet is the product of painstaking and unique research from original sources. Truth has never been more clearly shown to be stranger than fiction, than in this powerful book.