‘Picturing America’ at the Library
26 March 2010
The Bancroft pantheon
30 March 2010

The Loneliness of the long distance researcher


Today’s guest blogger, biographer Veronica Buckley, will be at the Library on Wednesday, March 31 at 19h30 to speak about her new book The Secret Wife of Louis XIV, Francoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon. Read a rave review from the New York Times.

Can a building shrink?

I don’t remember exactly when I first set eyes on the palace of Versailles, but I do remember wondering how the ministers of the grand siècle ever found their way to their desks. Perhaps they laid scents, I thought, and let the King’s retired hunting dogs lead the way. On the other hand, if the dogs were old, how many of them would have been able to make it from one end to the other, day in day out? The place was unreconnoitrably vast.

But the human brain is a curious thing. Versailles had been the home of the subject of my new book, The Secret Wife of Louis XIV, and I was bound to get to know the various nooks and crannies that had played a part in her story. So I returned to Versailles time and time again, and each time I went, working out what had happened where and fitting everything together, I found it mysteriously smaller than the last time I had been there.

Eventually, with the palace mapped, so to speak, I began work on the grounds, quietly hoping for a similar Alice in Wonderland trick. To save time, I had bought a facsimile of the Sun King’s own Manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles, signed and dated 19 July 1689, six o’clock in the evening – Louis was a punctual man – but even so, it took me several visits to encompass the formal gardens, with their hundreds of lovely sculptures and the many concealing bosquets of lovers’ trysts long past, and beyond these spread the park, and further again, the huge domaine, a forest once full of game for a king passionately fond of hunting, and still forbiddingly dense and dark. I’m not an adventurous type, more ham sandwich than wild boar, so I was prepared to take the forest on trust and, fortified with a thermos flask of hot chocolate, confine myself to the park.

Following my guide, I had planned a first three-hour walk, dutifully skirting the enticing eighteenth-century areas to ensure the required seventeenth-century overview. I should have known better. Historical things are never that clear-cut. One period runs into the next, and in any case, how could I resist the Trianons and make-believe farms that I had almost to myself, since it was January, when all sensible people are sitting comfortably at home in the warmth. I was well wrapped up, but as I turned back into what had seemed to be a shortcut, my boots and mittens and borrowed arctic jacket suddenly weren’t enough. The wind had come up, the clouds had turned black, and the wintry sun had disappeared completely. Fat raindrops plopped down on me, promising a grim slog back, bizarrely twice as far, according to the guide, as I had come on the outward trek.

But through the bushes, a weak light winked at me. I gave a shout, and soon was hitching a ride on a little electric cart, the modern version of the Sun King’s own thoughtfully provided ‘rolling chairs upholstered in damask’ for his gouty park visitors. My rescuers weren’t gout sufferers, just friendly golf enthusiasts from Phoenix, excited to be caught in the rain.

Golfers always know the way back to the pavilion. I stood spouting profuse thanks as a grumpy steward, tired of waiting, locked up the little cart, with the two Arizonans waving a cheery goodbye to us both. And I turned towards the palace gates, reflecting that if a building can shrink, a garden can surely grow…

–Veronica Buckley 


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