More than a year ago, I joined an online group of readers who focused on historical novels. Through them, I have found a renewed interest in fiction and nonfiction set in the past, and have happily discovered some new authors to try on.
One of these was newcomer Catherine Delors. Her novel, Mistress of the Revolution may at first appear to be not much more than yet another novel set during the fall of the French monarchy, and the rise of the French Revolution and all of the adventure that would create. It's proved to be very fertile ground for novelists, and in recent years, there has been a real upsurge of interest in the period. Sadly, most of what gets published is not much more than trite modern romance dressed up in fancy clothes, and where authors betray their own lack of research with every word that their characters utter. And these sorts of novels were what have caused me to loose interest in the genre, swamped as it is with heaving bosoms and too perfect characters.
So it was with some trepidation that I ordered this from Amazon. But once I started reading, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. The story starts in a rather classic way, with a young girl of eleven being suddenly called home to the family chateau from a convent. Gabrielle de Montserrat is fresh and lovely, and just a bit on the determined side. While she knows that she has a duty to her family and class, there's a part of herself that aches to move beyond the constrants of her existance. If she just knew what they were.
Four years pass, with Gabrielle running wild, enjoying the company of her elder brother, the Marquis de Casel, and chafing under the restrictions of her rather cold-blooded mother. But a warm summer's day brings her to the notice of a young man, Andre-Pierre Coffinhal, an aspiring doctor from a nearby town. They're smitten by each other, and vow to be together in that mad rush of a first love, but when her brother finds out, Gabrielle is forced to marry someone else.
Her husband, while of appropriate rank and wealth, treats Gabrielle with seeming goodwill in public, but in private treats her with distain and brutality. The only good thing to come of the marriage is her beloved daughter Aimee, and Gabrielle vows to make her daughter's life very different than her own. But when the husband dies sudden, Gabrielle finds herself in genteel poverty, and being discarded by her own family.
What's a French girl to do but go to Paris? With a benefactress, the Duchess, and a ready wit of her own, Gabrielle finds the court at Versailles a new world indeed. Through Gabrielle's eyes we see her meet the influential and famous, and the Count de Villars, a handsome nobleman who tempts Gabrielle besides her fears to take a daring step.
But everything comes to an end when revolutionary fervour sweeps France, and Gabrielle has to make some choices of her own...
I must say, that while the plot of this one is rather standard -- girl meets boy, girl looses boy, girl struggles through many obstacles and so on -- I was thrilled by the fact that Catherine Delors uses reality to not just form the background of her novel, but also to motivate and build her characters. They speak in the style of the period, look at the world with the minds and attitudes of the time, and behave accordingly. While Gabrielle is very naive at the start -- how many mature teenagers do we really know? -- she does learn from her experiences, growing into a woman that we can both like and sympathize with. It's this handling of her characters that really makes this novel shine for me, these are all flesh and blood people, who have reasons for what they do.
One special moment for me was a discussion of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which really was a scandal at the time, and being that I have been a fan both the written and film versions, this was like having a little extra to the story. The author continues the same touches in clothing, music, and art of the time, with Gabrielle interacting with many of the known artists and writers of the time. It's something that really does help to flesh out the story.
All in all, I really liked this one. It's packed with plenty of drama, lots of description, and the author never loses sight of the time and place, and especially of her characters. I won't be a bit surprised if this is one of my top ten novels for the year. In any case, I hope that Ms. Delors continues to write, this is a very promising start!
And do keep the tissues handy for the last part of the novel.
Five stars overall.
Mistress of the Revolution
2008; Dutton Books, PenguinGroupUSA
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