REVIEW: Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors
Dear Ms. Delors,
First, I must compliment you on your mastery of the English language. It wasn’t until I was over halfway through the book that I went to your website and read your bio. Are there plans to translate the book into French? Second, I must say brava for managing to convey what was going on without the book turning into a history lecture – and this is five years of madly shifting politics and complete social upheaval. You are also able to show the changes from not only the viewpoint of the aristocracy – those for whom things are getting worse – but also of the peasants and bourgeoisie – those for whom things were looking up.
There are really two stories here: first about Gabrielle’s life and second about late 18th Century France just before and during the Revolution. It’s bittersweet story of love found, lost and found again. I don’t think it has so much a happy ending as a realistic one. The times were uncertain and it seems that most of the major Revolutionary figures ultimately came to brutal ends. While reading it, I tried to remember that most of them were not necessarily bloodthirsty people but men trying to mold a totally new nation and society on the fantastic ideals of equality, liberty and brotherhood. That events went too far is obvious, that they somehow lost control is a certainty but their goals were admirable.
As I read, I couldn’t help making a few comparisons between the young Gabrielle, barely educated and unsophisticated, and the heroine of the Angelique novels. Both are country raised daughters of impoverished French nobility. Both were brought up in ways that confound my notions of rich, indolent aristos living in luxury. Both end up getting some hard knocks from life. The detail you provide of life in French countryside is amazing. The story of Gabrielle’s cheapskate mother, controlling brother and ghastly first husband is chilling. Today it’s mind boggling to read about a woman who doesn’t see her own daughter from the child’s birth until she’s eleven years old. Was this normal for the aristocracy? Thank God I didn’t live like this.
After her ‘living hell’ of a marriage was over, I totally agree with Gabrielle’s decision to strike out on her own and head for Paris. But then given her husband’s will, she really had no choice. Did you take the details of that from actual wills? Hopefully not the family ones you mentioned at your website. Though Gabrielle ends up making some bad choices in life, I think they all, in the end, were her attempt to be able to provide for herself and not to be dependent on the uncertainties of a man’s whim.
I enjoyed reading about Gabrielle’s Abbess sister, Helene who seems one of the few family members who ever really loved her. Would Gabrielle have given into Viller’s entreaties without the information conveyed to her by Helene – i.e. what constitutes sin? Would she have been able to survive what was to come if she hadn’t? This first section seems to show that, for some, life was lovely then but for most it was awful – i.e. the lettres de cachet (as I remember depicted in Evelyn Anthony’s “The French Bride,”) lack of parental love/feeling, subjugation of wives, how horrible life was at Versailles with cabals/cliques and dirty living conditions. In other words, the beautiful world wasn’t really so beautiful.
So, should Gabrielle have fled France with the other émigrés? I can see why she didn’t want to leave – because she was one of the upper-class who believed in the ideals of what could happen as the country totally changed from the hidebound aristocratic privileged world it had been for centuries, because she saw the possibility of a new and wonderful world and she wanted to be part of it. And also because this was her home, she loved it and who ever wants to leave their home? One keeps hoping until the last that things will improve or at least not get any worse and that one’s world will be all right. I laughed at the mention of female rights and Gabrielle’s wry observation that most of the male Revolutionaries were conspicuously silent on giving women equal rights with men. She and Abigail Adams should have sat down to tea to commiserate.
Aurelien de Villers – what a total breakdown of a man. At first he seemed so charming and I agreed with Gabrielle’s desire to marry, despite her first marriage, and be secure. Then he seemed to be behind the social changes and determined to be a part of them and see that France became what the Revolution promised. And then — whoa Nelly, what happened to him? Was this the effect of the massive changes going on in his world? That he was losing control of his input into the Revolutionary changes and he had to maintain control over something and that something was Gabrielle?
Pierre-André Coffinhal was a (literally) larger than life Revolutionary figure about whom I’d never heard a word before this book. It was thought provoking what he said about trials during the ancient regime (again as in, for example, the Angelique novels) and how the Tribunal was better. With so much historical emphasis on the Terror that came after, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that in the early days of the Revolution the accused did have attorneys and that some of them were acquitted.
A quick check didn’t reveal much information on the Internet about Coffinhal in English. It was poignant when Gabrielle mused on what their lives would have been like had they been allowed to marry when younger, or if she had sought him out when she arrived in Paris. But as you say, he does have his cruel side and threatens Gabrielle at times and often repeats his order for her never to importune him for favors. Yet when she does (and she does it for good reasons and not just on a whim – she was steadfastly loyal herself, as he was to Robespierre, to those for whom she felt obligations showing a true example of noblesse oblige) he almost always gives in to her and tries to do what she asks even though he is in as much danger as anyone else.
His life was a good lesson of the times. It doesn’t matter who you are or how high you stand in the hierarchy – you can go down in an instant. Thanks for introducing me to several historical figures of the Revolution of whom I knew nothing and for trying to show events from the standpoint of each character and not historical viewpoint (i.e. Marie Antoinette’s trial from Coffinhal’s POV).
The first person POV worked well for the beginning of the novel. But later it means that Gabrielle can’t be at most of the early historic events of the Revolution and has to learn of and about them from people she knows who were there. It kind of makes these events seem distant and leads to a past tense/dissociated feel. It wasn’t until things began to impact Gabrielle directly that I started to get a feeling of immediacy again.
And what horrible events they were: Gabrielle’s imprisonment at La Force and the storming of the Tuileries. Chevelier des Huttes’s death – oh, how awful – and the fate of the Princess de Lamballe – my knees were weak as I read. One of the most interesting tertiary characters was Martial – the guard at La Force who befriended and stood by Gabrielle – even promising to make sure she was killed quickly and painlessly. Well, I guess you have to take what niceness in the world you can find.
In the end I see Gabrielle as strong and as a survivor. She survived her childhood, her first marriage, the Revolution and the loss of so many who were close to her. She saw her world upended yet managed to save herself and her daughter. And in the world you so fantastically portray, that’s no mean feat. I would liked to have seen a little more of how she ended up in England but with the length of the novel, it’s understandable that you needed to make some cuts. I have one final albeit trivial question. Were you refering to the Beast of Gevaudan early in the book? Just curious. B
available in hardcover