Sunday, 21 November 2010

Leaving home—17th century style

It's always a pleasure to read the 17th-century memoirs of Saint-Simon: he invariably manages to work in the poignant details researchers—especially novelist-researchers—love. Historians remind us that much of what Saint-Simon reports is hear-say, but it's valuable nonetheless.

I am particularly charmed by his account of convincing his family to allow him to join the army as a teen. It reveals that family dynamics were not all that different in the 17th century.

He begins: 
In 1691 I was studying my philosophy and beginning to learn to ride at an academy at Rochefort, getting mightily tired of masters and books, and anxious to join the army. ... I made up my mind, therefore, to escape from my leading-strings.
(I love that.)
I addressed myself to my mother.  I soon saw that she trifled with me. I had recourse to my father ... . I said nothing of this to my mother, who did not discover my plot until it was just upon the point of execution.
His "plot" was to convince his father that the King had no intention of going to war that year and so no harm would come to him. It was a falsehood, the rascal, which his father believed.
My father took me, therefore, to Versailles ... and begged of the King admission for me into the Musketeers.  It was on the day of St. Simon and St. Jude, at half-past twelve, as his Majesty came out of council. The King did my father the honour of embracing him three times ...
(Again, a charming detail.)
... and then turned towards me. Finding that I was little and of delicate appearance, he said I was still very young; to which my father replied that I should be able in consequence to serve longer.  

Of course, only three months after the boy had became a Musketeer, it was announced that the King planned to go to war.
My joy was extreme; but my father, who had not counted upon this, repented of having believed me .... My mother, after a little vexation and pouting at finding me enrolled by my father against her will, did not fail to bring him to reason and to make him provide me with an equipment of thirty-five horses or mules...
And so the young man gets wish after all, and sets off for war with thirty-five horses! He's not entirely without his leading-strings, however, since he's accompanied by his tutor and his mother's squire.

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon
Complete memoirs available for download on Project Gutenberg

Sandra Gulland