REVIEW: Angelique: The Marquise of Angels by Serge and Anne Golon
Dear Serge and Anne Golon,
I have long heard about Angelique, your big romantic bestseller from 1957, when I was a little kid in the ‘80s. Even in the ‘80s, the books from the series always sat moldering on shelves in the used bookstores of my hometown, and they looked just like the exciting, bodice-ripping kitsch that I liked to read by the truckload, but something about them gave me pause. The series looked so long, and it didn’t seem to have any resolution. And the more I learned about the series, it just seemed like a TV show that went on too long past the time it should have been cancelled. The Angelique series went on for thirteen books, but only ten were translated into English, and it still wasn’t finished.
Trigger warning: rape and child abuse
Ms. Golon, I heard you were supposedly working finishing the series, but as you died in the July of 2017, I guess that probably isn’t going to happen. The books aren’t even available in ebook format. I managed to find a large print edition at my local library, published in 1995. The forward is written by Kathryn Falk, founder of Romantic Times magazine. In it, she describes the book as a “keeper,” and sings its praises, and the eponymous heroine, and how she “inspired” the many fans of the novel to “take more control over their destiny.”
There’s even a historical forward by the talented Sylvia Halliday, who has written many books I love, discussing the era in which Angelique is set (the 1650s-1660s in France) and how accurate it was. So, as you can imagine, I had high hopes for it.
After long last, I finally finished it. Wow, I’m not sure what to say. Angelique is a big mess. It doesn’t know what it is. Is it a coming of age story, a romance, a serious historical novel or some sleazy episodic adventure? It tries to be all, and fails at being any.
First of all, it’s really, really long. 230,000 words. I did appreciate the epic sweep and the detail and the adventure, but I didn’t much care for the flat characters, pulpy plotting and uneven pacing and tone.
All in all, it’s halfway between serious midcentury historical fiction from authors like Samuel Shellabarger and Thomas Costain and trashy pulp like Mandingo.
The depiction of trauma and sexual violence in this book just feels so off, that it boggles the imagination that you, Ms. Golon, were a journalist in Nazi-occupied France. For example, in the first chapter you have Angelique’s nurse discussing how her son was born of a gang rape in a barn and how her “one skirt was destroyed” and she recalls the gang rape with “a languorous sensuality and horror.” She then talks about how her husband, while she was being raped, had his feet set close to the flames so he would tell the brigands where his money was and “she thought it was a pig being roasted!” and she laughs. Ugh.
Some brigands attack early on in the book, and this one kid’s dad is killed, but he shrugs it off. “He looks dead, look, he’s usually so ruddy, now he’s grey.” Then he finds his little sister gang raped, and he’s outraged. When the little sister dies— and she’s a friend of Angelique— she just shrugs it off. This makes zero impression on her whatsoever. Granted she’s a kid at the time, but she’s twelve. You’d think this would make some impression on her. (Unless she’s supposed to be a sociopath.)
But yes, this is pure emotional voyeurism. It wants the high drama but is not willing to acknowledge the actual damage that trauma does to a person.
(Of course when we do get to an actual rape scene later on, it’s played as being sexy, with the half-dead heroine ravished by her senses. She “has a body made for love.” Of course.)
For a book which is supposedly exciting, the pacing is off. The first quarter of the novel is dedicated to Angelique’s childhood as a titled hillbilly in Poitou, and then there’s some bits of intrigue, and then she goes to school, and blah blah blah her little sister dies and blah blah blah infodump (i.e. everything you wanted to know about convent school education in 1600s France but were afraid to ask). Finally her marriage is arranged to the “hero,” the Comte de Peyrac, who is finally introduced on page 252 on my edition. Ah yes. JOFFREY. The wonderful Joffrey. Who is running a Ponzi scheme and also laundering money though Angelique’s dad, but this is okay because JOFFREY is doing it, and the authors assure us that everything this guy does is awesome.
Anyway, I really hated this character (I wonder if George R.R. Martin named his loathsome boy king in Game of Thrones after him?) What a mansplaining douchebag this guy is. (I was reminded of this gag on The Good Place more than once.) He’s smug, he loves to hear himself talk, he likes to explain science to everyone and makes fun of people who believe in alchemy, because apparently even though this is the 1650s, anyone who believes in alchemy is a rube. Also, he’s been to Egypt, China, and even islands which sound exactly like the Falkland Islands! (The Falkland Islands weren’t discovered until the 1690s.) Because he’s that awesome. And he has the most amazing singing voice ever, and even though he’s a “scientist” who loves “science” he is obsessed with his glorious ancestors and early medieval history and runs a courts-of-love style club in Toulouse, because medieval history was so cool and fashionable in the 1600s. (It wasn’t.) I sure love the historical accuracy in this book! (Which is sporadic if anything.)
Joffrey is in fact such a cool guy that he kills another guy, Germontaz, in a duel, for the crime of kissing his wife. Also, Germontaz is the nephew of the archbishop of Toulouse, his archenemy, who works for the Inquisition. Here’s how the murder is described:
But, each time, the Comte de Peyrac broke away nimbly. His swiftness made up for the handicap of his game leg. Once Germontaz forced him back against the stairs and compelled him to mount a few steps, but he vaulted the balustrade, and the Chevalier barely had time to wheel around to face him again. Germontaz was beginning to tire. He was well versed in the subtleties of fencing, but this rapid play bewildered him. The Comte’s sword slashed his right sleeve and scratched his arm. It was only a surface wound, but it bled profusely; the wounded arm which held the sword still grew numb. The Chevalier fought with increasing difficulty. Panic appeared in his great, popping eyes. Joffrey’s, burning with a somber fire, were unrelenting. Angelique read in them the death sentence.
She bit her lips till she almost cried out with pain, but she dared not make a move. There followed a sort of deep, raucous cry like a woodcutter’s grunt of strain. When she looked again, she saw that the Chevalier de Germontaz was sprawled out on the mosaic tiles with the hilt of Joffrey’s sword protruding from his side. The Great Lame Man of Languedoc bent over him with a smile.
“Mummeries and simperings!” he said softly.
(pgs. 357-358 Angelique: The Marquise of Angels)
After leaving the body cooling on the porch, he throws his wife over his saddle and goes off and has sex with her for the first time. It’s all waving silk banners and crashing waves and inexplicable feelings but with lines like “dominated by her master” (which called to mind books like Outlaw of Gor). And they’re both super turned on by the murder that just happened. I felt so repulsed by this, and I kept thinking, “Wait, are these supposed to be the good guys!?”
It was all so repellent that I almost stopped reading altogether. But lucky for me, Joffrey disappears from the novel after causing me to grind my teeth for two hundred pages, and at last the book picks up in the second half.
After some tedious filler about King Louis marrying Maria Theresa of Spain and pages upon pages of costume description of various minor characters, Joffrey is kidnapped and Angelique, who is amazed that the archbishop of Toulouse still holds a grudge against her husband (quick hint, Angelique—it’s because he murdered his nephew), has to go and rescue him. Of course, she makes a hash of it, because she’s about as smart as a rock and a complete narcissist who can’t seem to imagine other people might feel differently than her. She treats her sister like crap even though she pays her rent and feeds her, and she even insults the king when she gets an audience with him to plead for her husband’s life. He does her a favor by meeting with her, and he’s pretty reasonable, but she’s angry and demanding, and she chastises him. Seriously?
Regardless, we’ve got some cool adventure bits where Angelique learns to navigate the streets of Paris and there’s a scene in the Louvre—hands down the best part of the novel—where she is cornered by potential assassins and she must fight for her life. If the entire novel had been like that—like an updated more female-centric Rafael Sabatini novel—that would have been awesome! But no. It’s not.
Spoiler (Spoilers): Show
The book is just so odd. The writing has some skill, but there’s so many problems with it— it’s like a collection of every bad writing trope popular in the ‘50s. Not to mention the rampant passive voice that is everywhere. It creates an odd remove when reading the book; you aren’t involved in the action; it’s like watching a movie of something that happened a long time ago. The angst that Angelique feels at the very end is something, at least, but in my opinion, it’s a little too late. Why didn’t she feel anything when her friend was gang raped or her little sister died back in the convent? Oh wait, I know the answer to this. That’s because they were women.
Let’s not also forget the racism and homophobia in this book either, but that would make this review twice as long as it already is.
But the biggest problem in the book is that there is no character development. There’s some hand-waving at the very end about Angelique going from the little girl who scampered around her childhood home to the hardened lady giving birth in the Hotel-Dieu at the end, but it feels, to me, very surface, because we don’t see much of Angelique’s internal life and how her various attitudes developed. She’s a “proud beauty,” i.e. she’s rude and self-absorbed. I just read 230k words but I would have trouble describing her in any other way. What does she like to read? What does she like to eat? Her tastes? Her fears? Her ambitions? Her innermost thoughts and desires? I have no idea. You’d think a book that long would have time to get into stuff like that, but for the most part, it’s all surface. I’ve seen better character development in the pilot of Dynasty than in this supposed “classic” historical novel.
I suppose that’s why it’s out of print. It’s become dated and irrelevant. It’s European baby boomer nostalgia, and that’s it. It could have been a decent book if it had been edited and with better character arcs, and I did enjoy it in parts, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone, unless you are specifically interested in the history of romance novels or 17th century France.
This book is important to the evolution and development of the romance novel, but it’s been forgotten, and rightly so. Let us leave it in the past.