Thursday, March 20, 2008
Mistress of The Revolution - Catherine Delors
This was a difficult review to write. I enjoyed the book very much and I wanted to do it justice but sometimes there are so many things you appreciate that you get overwhelmed when it comes to writing the review.
This book reads like a memoir, the heroine is looking back on her past and telling us about her life. There are only a few occasions in which we are brought back to the present and actually know her as an old woman.
This is a book about a very sensitive period in history. The French Revolution gave us the ideals we still live by today but at the same time it was a period of such blood shed that sometimes, when I read about it, the good parts pale in comparison.
The book starts as Gabrielle de Montserrat is brought to her family to live after a few years living with a nurse and then a few more in a convent completing her education. Her family belongs to the impoverished aristocracy and it is understood that she will be expected to marry well. However Gabrielle ends up falling in love with a young commoner - Pierre Andre Coffinhal - and to prevent them from being together her brother marries her to a man thrice her age when she is only 15. Said husband will mistreat her before finally dying and leaving her penniless and with a little daughter. Without any other options she accepts to go to Paris and live with an old relation. There she will be in touch with the court life and the last moments of the Old Regime. Her story is not uncommon when it comes to the history of women in general. Dependent on men to provide for her, as due to her status work can't be considered, she becomes the mistress of a rich men. Her position as Lady In Waiting to the Countess of Provence will allow her to get to know the most important personalities in the political scene. After the monarchy is abolished she is reduced to a "ci-devant" (an ex) Baroness and in a world where titles are no longer tolerated she finds herself imprisoned and in constant danger of being tried and killed just because she was an aristocrat. As the situation collapses she asks for the help of Pierre-Andree who has risen to be an important member of the Revolutionary Tribunal and a close friend of Robespierre. The relationship that they develop will allow Gabrielle and us to follow the period of the Terror and its political changes especially it what concerns civil rights. From its beginning till the moment when the leaders of the revolution end up being led to the guillotine themselves.
I found it strange at first that Gabrielle could mention so many horrifying things in a detached manner. But then it struck me that she is looking back into the past, some events are long gone and we are watching them through her eyes. The first person point of view also helps with that. It’s an interesting way of telling the story and I also found it important in a different level. She manages to convey both the old world and the new society that comes out of the revolution without being judgemental. It’s through Pierre-Andre’s character that we have most of the analysis and condemnation of the old regime and the defence of the new order. Gabrielle has a more feminine approach to reality with worries about family and friends which make her observations very interesting in a different way. I felt that last part of the book was the stronger one and why I ended up loving it so much.
The romantic element is strong but this is Gabrielle's story, not a romance, and in the end she survives and becomes stronger. When she reaches the end of her story she is in London and thinks about how twenty three years later the émigrés are returning to France as the Bourbons were restored to the throne. She, however, will never be able to go back…
The characters are interesting and I felt that the more I knew them the more I wanted to know. The historical background is really well done. We get a true feeling of the period without it taking centre stage.
One final note to say the book is populated by real people, who actually existed – starting with Coffinhal - and I really liked that.