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REVIEW: The Dark Palazzo by Virgina Coffman

Dear Ms. Coffman,

During my junior year of high school, I happened to take AP European History. I recall many things from that course, but what I chiefly remember is the section on the French Revolution. Perhaps it was my general interest in all things French during that phase of my adolescence, but I seem to remember that I was especially fascinated with the Revolution more than any other section we studied. I sympathized with the sans culottes. After all, I too felt oppressed on a daily basis by the petty authoritarianism of high school politics. I was of the opinion that there was nothing as perfectly natural as wanting to behead aristocrats, an opinion I maintain to this day.

The Dark Palazzo by Virgina CoffmanI was honestly baffled by my fellow students who sympathized with the aristocracy. It seemed absurd to me. Not only were they not aristocrats, but they never would be. None of their ancestors were aristocrats and in all likelihood, should they ever travel back in time, they would have undoubtedly have been one of the unwashed masses cramming the sewage littered streets leading into the Place de la Revolution. I, at least, had the awareness that I was more likely to be Madame Defarge than the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The reason I mention this long ago high school memory is because as much as I love my dukes and earls in my historical romances, I’m a bit disturbed by their sheer number. There’s something I find ideologically disturbing in how the French Revolution gets cast as some Great Tragedy in the annals of history as opposed to something more akin to our own American Revolution. I don’t really understand why the French are always the villains, especially considering that from a philosophical perspective the ideals of the French Revolution were not so very different than America’s, today or yesterday.

Flash forward to me sifting through books at the annual library book sale. I just so happened to pick up your book, The Dark Palazzo. I guessed it was a gothic based upon its cover and, although I had never heard of you before, I also suspected it was a romance. I think I paid $1 for it. And boy, am I ever glad that I did.

The Dark Palazzo is, in many ways, the quintessential gothic. It begins as Rachel Carewe, daughter of the British Ambassador to Venice, disembarks on the Grand Canal her companion, Miss Dace, in tow. Miss Carewe has come to Venice to live with her long-estranged father who she hasn’t seen for the better part of a decade. Around the time that Rachel was twelve, her French mother took her back to France when she returned to her own people. Unfortunately, she did so right before the Revolution. Since that time, Rachel has endured many trials and tribulations, not least of which was a stint in the Conciergerie and the death of her mother.

The novel is set during that strange period of time when Napoleon was not yet Emperor, but merely the general of the Revolution armies. The Venice that Rachel enters is one that is decadent, decrepit, and divided between the Austrian Empire and the shoe-less soldiers of the French army as it pushes its enemies back beyond their borders. Venice is teetering on the brink, caught between two ideologies and the armies that represent them. It is awash in spies and displace aristocrats from various countries. At the center of all this is Rachel’s father, Sir Maitland Carewe—called the British Lion by the Venetians—holds the dubious distinction of maintaining Venice’s precarious balance between the various European forces now encroaching upon its borders.

It’s into this political bumble-broth that Rachel must navigate, gondolier or not gondolier. For herself, Rachel desires some kind of peace and quiet. A sense of home that has been deprived of her since the first sallies of the Revolution. Alas, because this is a gothic, this is not to be. Her father’s home is no haven to Rachel, run as it is by the housekeeper, Signora Teotochi, a beautiful and cunning woman who appears to resent Rachel’s appearance and position as lady of the house.

As for her father, Sir Maitland Carewe has changed. He’s aged. No longer the Lion she remembers him being, Carewe’s formidable personality seems to have diminished in the decade since Rachel last saw him. With the exception of her English companion, Miss Dace, there are none who remember her. When she goes to seek out her father’s First Secretary, a man who has known her since earlier childhood, she finds that he has been replaced and no one, apparently, has any idea what has happened to him.

Before long, it is Rachel’s own identity that is being questioned. Signora Teotochi has planted seeds of doubt her father’s mind. Every dinner becomes a test of her memory of the past. More strange still, there’s a man loitering about the canals outside the Carewe Palazzo. Calling himself Messire Livio, the gentleman seems to be some kind of tarnished gentry, slight and bespectacled. But behind the spectacles and the slightly effete mannerisms, Rachel suspects is a different sort of man, someone who seems to be hiding. But what Messire Livio interest in the Carewe household is, is not certain.

I very much enjoyed this book. As I said, it is in some ways quite a traditional gothic and there are not that many surprises when it comes to the plot in this respect. Yet, what I found compelling about this book, more than the ubiquitous mystery at the center of Venice, was how France, the French, and the French Revolution were treated.

Part of Rachel’s character arc is realization that she does not belong in Venetian society, nor British society either. The Revolution has changed her. Not simply because of the deaths and destruction she has witnessed, but the ideals behind it. She has spent her adolescence and young womanhood in a place that does not demand she submit her will to any father, husband, or step-mother. The strictures of Venetian life began to chafe at her, and slowly, Rachel comes to the realization that she is not English, cannot be Venetian, and is, most shockingly of all, a citizen of the Republic of France, one and indivisible.

Parallel to this personal journey, is Rachel’s falling in love with the mysterious Messire Livio.

Spoilers:

[spoiler]Messire Livio, it turns out, is a Corsican spy, sent ahead of Napoleon’s armies to make a treaty with the Doge behind Austria and the Council of Ten’s backs. Livio is not an aristocrat and he may not even be a gentleman. Technically speaking, he isn’t even French. The fact that it is this man, not a British spy or a British aristocrat, who plays the hero, is really the thing that is different about this book. I’m not entirely sure if the history is correct, AP European notwithstanding. And certainly, it takes an idealistic view of the Revolution. However, not anymore idealistic than the view most historical romances take of the British army.

I think this totally unexpected viewpoint of history is best summarized by the last paragraph of the novel which goes as follows:
“And we three started out across the lively square of San Marco. The great red and gold banner, the Lion of St. Mark, beat at its talk staff. Beside it was the bright Tricoleur of France, to guarantee, as I hoped, the liberties of Venice. After a few minutes, Livio and I looked at each other and smiled, and we were thinking not of the painful past, but of the future, of those glorious years to come in the new century.”

[/spoiler]

The love story and mystery are all superbly done and since this is an older novel, there isn’t much sex. But what shifts this book into a remarkable category, is the sheer novelty of the treatment of the Revolution, which I think I have never seen before. For that fact alone, I would recommend this book. Fortunately the romance and the mystery are worth reading in and of themselves, especially if you like late 1960’s gothic novels as much as I do. B+

Digital editions are now available on Kindle and at Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Lazaraspaste

AmazonBN

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

7 Comments

  1. carmen webster buxton
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 12:49:54

    The French Revolution may have had high ideals, but from what I have read (and I confess I was an art major, so it wasn’t a whole lot) it started out as peasants overthrowing their oppressors and became “The Terror,” a witch hunt atmosphere in which to be accused of feeling sympathy with the old regime was to be found guilty and executed in short order. The Brits actually had their own royal overthrow but they called it their Civil War instead of a revolution (even though they executed Charles I). Interestingly, the French version took better than the English. The French Revolution gave Napoleon a leg up on being Emperor of most of Europe (all the while spouting revolutionary slogans) but when he was gone, the restored monarchy never took hold. The Brits meanwhile, invited Charles II back to the throne after Cromwell died. But perhaps they knew they could keep him in line?

  2. DS
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 14:21:18

    Virginia Coffman was a favorite gothic novelist. You ought to look for her original The Devil Vicar. (Avoid The Vicar of Moura. The Devil Vicar– as well as several of her other single titles– was rewritten to fit into the Moura series.) She also wrote several more books set during the French Revolution.

    The Moura books all involved Anne Wicklow (an Irish housekeeper) who appears in each book with a different hero. The original hero gets killed off between the 1st and 2nd books and frankly the device did not appeal to me.

  3. lazaraspaste
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 17:36:07

    @carmen webster buxton: Yeeeaaaah . . . but that’s the point. Napoleon and the French, by extension, get near universally villified in historical romances, the British aristocracy lauded, and I just find it odd after all these years of romance reading to never have encountered the opposite perspective. Particularly since, as you say, the British did indeed execute their own king at one point.

    @DS: I’ve just read The Alpine Coach which I thought was quite good. I’ll definitely be looking into the original The Devil Vicar. I’m also really glad you knew about the Anne Wicklow series because I was wondering about those. That would definitely drive me nuts, too! Gargh! Why not just choose a new heroine?

  4. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 19:05:56

    Sold! I totally agree with wishing there were more books with the French POV.

  5. carmen webster buxton
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 19:08:06

    Maybe it all boils down to who lost at Waterloo? The do say the winner gets to write history.

  6. Susan
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 19:46:09

    Thanks for this. It’s a bit like finding buried treasure isn’t it? Something that was lost is rediscovered. I’d never heard of this author, and I can’t wait to try this book (as well as some of her others, maybe).

    I’m not overly sympathetic to the aristocrats, be they French, British, whatever. I’m glad I don’t really have to live in the eras that some of my favorite historical novels are set in. Among other considerations, in real life I’d doubtless be a scullery maid. An incompetent scullery maid. I don’t let these minor considerations ruin my fairy tales, tho. :-)

    There were plenty of atrocities during the American Revolution, so I don’t mean to whitewash things. But these acts were not necessarily carried out or condoned by government officials/leaders, and the rule of law was fairly quickly and effectively re-established by the end of the formal hostilities. But the French Revolution was more like the Russian Revolution than the American. They weren’t rebelling against a distant “foreign” government: This was a civil war. Frenchman was pitted against Frenchman. The aristos weren’ t the only target, either. Informers were everywhere and people of all economic and social strata became victims of the ongoing bloodbaths. In addition to the fear, add in economic privation. Overall, not a fun time and, despite the idealistic rhetoric, not any sane person’s preferred blueprint for change. It’s not surprising that this colors fictional accounts.

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    Jul 13, 2012 @ 04:24:42

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