REVIEW: Veronique by Virginia Coffman
Dear Ms. Coffman,
There’s something uniquely disappointing about reading a bad book from a favorite author. I felt this way recently after reading your historical novel, Veronique, after years of reading your wonderful Gothic romances—Moura and The Alpine Coach are wonderful, but my favorite is The Dark Palazzo, a dreamy, atmospheric thriller set in late 1790s Venice where the hero is a French-Corsican revolutionary. It’s such a delightful book (Lazaraspaste wrote about it glowingly here.)
It’s one of the few romances I can think of that actually successfully conveyed a pro-revolutionary viewpoint. I was hungry for others, and I remembered I’d tried to read your French Revolution historical novel, Veronique. I vaguely remembered finishing it, and that I liked the hero, but I didn’t remember much else. This was twelve years ago, and my memory has never been the best.
So I just re-read Veronique… and it all came flooding back. There was a reason why it didn’t make a big impression on me. To be blunt, it’s not very good.
It pains me to say this, Ms. Coffman, because you are something of a personal hero to me. Even in Veronique, your prose is lovely, and in many ways you are a born storyteller. But I think the subject matter overwhelmed you—and possibly the weight of writing for the mainstream, middle-brow audience for historical fiction in 1974. Kirkus deigned to write a horribly sexist review of it, which you can read here. There’s even the condescending line—“but you know the audience–it reads while it knits.” Oh God, ugh.
Anyway, it seems to me that you have two modes: Gothic mode and epic mode. The Gothics are exciting and tightly paced, with great characterization, and your historical knowledge is used to great effect. Your epics (i.e. Veronique, The Lady Serena, The Ravishers, The Passion of Letty Fox) tend to meander, with episodic plotting galore. But out of all of the ‘epic’ books you’ve written, Veronique is by far the worst. It was also the first epic you wrote, so that goes some way to explain its issues.
Veronique, the eponymous heroine, is a teenaged noblewoman raised to become a nun, whose cousins are going to inherit her father’s estate. It starts in April 1789. She meets the hero, Gilles, who is, anachronistically, a Jacobin sketch artist/cartoonist (the Jacobin club did not exist yet). There’s some business about him being arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Veronique’s dad doesn’t like him, but as she likes him a lot, she helps him escape. Then he kisses her in this breathless closed-mouth 1940s way, and she’s in lurve.
He pulled her against him. Veronique tried to protest, found herself much more closely enmeshed. But in that first feather touch of his lips all her very earthy imaginings about him took hold of her. The woman who existed in her body responded to him now, and for a breathless few seconds she had no sensation that was not involved with him. When Gilles finally let her go, she was so lightheaded she could only say what she honestly felt. “If this is gratitude, monsieur, I am grateful for it…”
pg. 124, Veronique (Fawcett Crest, 1975 paperback edition)
So, Gilles gets out of town, while it’s revealed her dad’s asshole gamekeeper is the murderer; but the gamekeeper escapes. Quelle horreur! While improbable, it’s all fairly interesting, at least. However, it doesn’t help that Gilles, while superficially likeable, has no backstory whatsoever. He comes from a generic peasant background, but there’s nothing there about his mom or dad, whether they’re alive or dead, or whether he has any brothers or sisters—or anything. No education, no past jobs, nothing. Nada. There’s nothing even about where he’s from. He has even less background than Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus.
Moving on. Later on in the year, Veronique goes to Versailles. There’s a lot of ink spilled about how sympathetic Marie Antoinette is, while Veronique hangs out with a naughty curé who she shames for being naughty and un-Catholic. (Veronique, admittedly, has far more chemistry with the curé than Gilles, and she makes out him more than once, which is odd behavior for someone who claims that her dearest wish is to become a Bride of Christ so she can nurse the poor and the sick). Anyway, Gilles shows up again, she’s all aflutter, and I think, “Hey, who’s this guy again?”
They meet up, they decide to elope, the naughty curé helps them (I’m not sure why), and she runs off to Paris during the fall of the Bastille. The evil ex-gamekeeper chases them down on her dad’s orders, but she manages to kill him when he’s attacking Gilles. Then the dad shows up, brandishing– most unwisely– a gun when he demands this young radical to unhand his daughter. Gilles beats him up, he falls over a bannister, and he dies ignominiously. Veronique cries, “Will nothing content you but more blood?” End scene.
That’s the end of the first half of the novel. Now on to the second half, which is a huge mess.
So, instead of running back to her father’s estate and claiming it, or doing anything remotely sensible, Veronique decides to become a nun in Paris. But she takes an oath to the new Constitution, and she’s working at the Hotel-Dieu with the handicapped politician Couthon to help sick people, so she’s awesome, we are assured. For some reason, her mom the viscountess is with her as co-nurse, and has now discovered a reason for living. Meanwhile, Veronique is still yearning for Gilles, which made me go… what the hell. He killed your dad, Veronique, who you didn’t hate. Maybe that should make you stop and think, “Maybe this guy isn’t the right guy for me?” But that would require some development on the internal lives of the characters, so… that didn’t happen. It’s odd, because your previous books, Ms. Coffman, have excellent characterization.
Then the naughty curé shows up again, but he’s found Jesus. And he’s all about the Divine Right of Kings now! And he tells Veronique, “Hey, you’re going to help me rescue Marie Antoinette,” and she says, “Okay.” There’s not much reason for her to do this, other than a vague sense of guilt because she is very peripherally a republican, and that Marie Antoinette is a nice lady.
The rescue attempt goes very badly, as you can imagine, and then the plotters are uncovered, and Gilles (quelle surprise) is doing the uncovering as the official citizen representative. Since he’s still in love with her, for some reason, he sees Veronique and he keeps her name out of it. And they end up getting back together. They’re living in sin, because– according to Veronique– they CAN’T GET MARRIED because there’s no priests around! Even the priests who took a Constitutional Oath to the Republic wouldn’t marry them for some reason.
Of course, this idiotic plot twist is completely ignoring the fact that since 1792 civil marriage (and divorce) has been on the books in France, so there’s no reason on God’s green earth that they can’t get a priest-free wedding in 1793. I had some faith in your research before that moment, Ms. Coffman, but I couldn’t believe that you could miss something that huge. Civil marriage is a hugely important institution in France, and as an avowed Francophile, I’m amazed that you wouldn’t know this.
Anyway, the first part was a fairly enjoyable romantic adventure, up to the death of the dad. After that, it falls apart, because the character motivations stop making any sense, and then it turned into a Cliffs Notes version of Stanley Loomis’ (dreadful and dated) book Paris in the Terror. Oh no! Jolly Danton has been arrested! Robespierre, the sinister Sea-Green Incorruptible, is trying to grab power, blah, blah, blah. However, as interesting as this might be, this is all coming secondhand. So with Veronique, the only plot happening at that point may be described as “watching my boyfriend getting involved with Camille Desmoulins’ Vieux Cordelier newspaper.”
There is, admittedly, a minor subplot where she helps her mother, with some aristocratic orphans, escape to some nearby estate that her family still owns in the Meudon Woods.
Spoiler (spoilers): Show
The last lines in the novel are clearly meant to be stirring.
Veronique took her daughter’s fist in her hand, squeezed it gently and then brought it to her lips. “My gift from Gilles. My own little Marsanne… may she be a little of you and papa, and a little of me. And I can see already that she is his child. Think of it, Mother! To live as Marsanne Vaudraye will, in this new world he left for her…”
pg. 383, Veronique
Okay, what. What. This last line implies that Gilles somehow made the world a better place. Now, this would be a satisfactory closing line if the book dwelled on the many positive aspects of the Revolution. Like, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the salt tax, civil marriage for everyone, divorce, the reform of public education, universal suffrage of men regardless color, creed or property ownership, as well as the decriminalization of homosexuality and the emancipation of the Jewish people, who under the Revolution were granted the full right to be citizens. Not all of these gains were permanent (for example, universal suffrage for men was a legal right because of the Constitution of 1793, but was not formally enacted until 1848). But there were many net gains, and indeed many modern human rights movements date from this period. One could argue that all the deaths outdid the human rights gains, but that is that not the position this book purportedly takes. The Revolution is a good thing, we’re told, but we’re not shown it. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in Veronique.
Ms. Coffman, I know your work well, and I know you meant your story to be a homage to Danton and the Revolutionary left, but your story is weighted down by appalling Tale of Two Cities type clichés. Bowing and kissing hands is against the law! Nice clothes can’t be had anywhere except where scrounged from arrested aristocrats! Mobs of sans-culottes rampage across the post-apocalyptic shantytowns of Paris (this is all ahistorical, by the way). It’s all very disappointing.
But enough about all the historical stuff, I can hear you guys saying. What about the romance?
Well, that was even more disappointing. The first part, I admit, is lively and interesting. Gilles and Veronique made for an appealing couple, if underwritten. If she had continued to develop their characters after the death of the father, and had some genuine conflict between these two, the story would have been much more satisfying. Instead, Veronique is wishy-washy, limply flapping between royalism and republicanism, and so passive she doesn’t drive the story in any way. Gilles is just a cipher, and a heartless one at that. He never faces the consequences of his actions after he kills Veronique’s father—he doesn’t even feel guilty. (He blames fate at one point.) They’re both overshadowed by Danton, who I do admire– but I wonder, Ms. Coffman, why you just didn’t make the story about him.
So, all in all, Ms. Coffman, you are still an author I admire, but Veronique is one of your lesser efforts. (Note to readers: Virginia Coffman, who was born in 1914, died in 2005. She was sixty when she wrote Veronique, and in her fifties when she wrote all the Gothics she was famous for. Her last book came out from Severn House in 2000. What a writing powerhouse!)
I would only recommend Veronique if you are a diehard fan of the author. If not, I’d give it a miss. I give it a C-.
If you are interested in this period from a more left-friendly perspective, I highly recommend Ms. Coffman’s own The Dark Palazzo, as well as Jacobin’s Daughter by Joanne Williamson, which I reviewed earlier.