In this brief work, Frédéric Richaud manages to encapsulate the world of the Sun King and the rising tide of discontent between the French classes by way of… gardening?
Versailles is the focal point of this work, an expression of Royal dominance over the land. There’s plenty of information about the place itself, and there’s a distinct feeling that the abode – we begin just prior to court moving there from the Louvre – is itself a character. It’s treated with as much authorial love as any of the major figures in the work.
The book is a tale lived by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, head gardener for Louis XIV, and more at home with dirt than with dignitaries. The story isn’t just a tale of One Green Thumb And His King, though; it’s more subtle than that. It’s a portrait of love – for the land, for royalty – and how that love can be corrupted. How nature and decay works in us all. And how memory and expectation react when confronted with political awakening.
Richaud’s eye for detail is great, and whether the matters at hand are of life on the land or life at court, there’s a richness that’s not oversold. We’re given enough to survey each scene, without drowning in historical research as occurs with other writers. I’m reminded of Rose Tremain’s Restoration when reading Gardener to the King, though this novel is much more tightly focused on a small area – funny to say when you’re discussing events leading up to the French Revolution. But still; it’s in that area, and there’s a good chance you’ll like this if you’re keen on Tremain’s work.
This is a very slight novel – a novella, really – but it has stayed with me longer than much more weighty tomes. It is a luminescent, persistent work, all gilded falsity and earthy truthfulness.