Bringing to life such an enigmatic and elusive character is a formidable task. John Hardman accomplishes this with immense subtlety and skill. He has already written one excellent biography of Louis, which appeared on the bicentenary of the king’s death in 1993. His latest, however, is greatly expanded: broader in scope and considerably more detailed. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, finally, some of the papers examined by Soulavie have resurfaced – 171 of Louis’s letters to his long-serving foreign minister Vergennes, which at a stroke quadruple the existing number. These were published in 1998. The second is that, after a long period of neglect, historians have returned to the field of 18th-century French politics and some important new works have appeared. The materials are now in place for a fuller portrait of Louis XVI than at any previous time.
As a result, Hardman is able to dispel many of the myths that have gathered about the king since his death. Contrary to what hostile contemporaries, echoed by many historians, claimed, Louis was very far from stupid or lazy. He was gifted at mathematics and geography, and fascinated by the sea – his reign saw a remarkable rebuilding of the French navy. He also spoke Latin, Italian and, surprisingly, English, the language of France’s hereditary enemy. Throughout his life he was alternately fascinated and repelled by Britain’s political system and commercial power. He is probably the only French ruler to have had a subscription to The Spectator. Louis’s flaw was not stupidity but sometimes paralysing indecision, a product of heredity, early bereavements and the stultifying ritual of Versailles. Its effects were memorably summarised by his younger brother, the future Louis XVIII: ‘Imagine a set of oiled billiard-balls that you vainly try to hold together.’
This indecision, however, was much less apparent before than after 1789. Indeed, the greatest importance of the newly available letters to Vergennes is in showing how effective Louis could be, particularly in foreign policy, the traditional business of kingship, when seconded by a minister he trusted. This is clearest in Louis’s most crucial decision before the Revolution, to intervene on the side of the Americans in their struggle against Britain. This had enormous consequences: it brought the United States into being but saddled France with a war debt that four years later pitched the monarchy into terminal financial crisis. Louis later claimed that he regretted the decision. In the course of eighty fascinating pages that shed much new light on this turning point in the American War of Independence, Hardman shows that ultimate responsibility was the king’s. (Read more.)