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Mistress of the Revolution Hardcover – March 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Against the backdrop of the leadup to the French Revolution, Delors's mostly successful debut follows the life of Gabrielle de Montserrat, a feisty young woman forced by her meddling brother to forsake her commoner true love and marry the Baron de Peyre, a wealthy, older man. The baron is abusive and cruel, but the short-lived marriage produces a daughter before the baron dies. A widowed Gabrielle travels to Paris and enters the heady world of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, where, with a sparse inheritance and the responsibility of a young daughter, Gabrielle becomes the mistress of Count de Villers. Delors shines in her portrayal of the late 18th-century French women's world (she has a rougher time with the men), though the amount of political-historical detail covered overshadows the tragic love story that develops once Gabrielle reunites with her first love, Pierre-André Coffinhal, who is now a lawyer. The appearance of historical figures sometimes comes off awkwardly (as when Gabrielle meets Thomas Jefferson or has a private audience with Robespierre), and the ending is marred by a too-convenient and seemingly tossed-off twist. Nevertheless, the author ably captures the vagaries of French politics during turbulent times and creates a world inhabited by nicely developed and sympathetic characters. (Mar.)
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Cruelly deprived of her first love, poor but aristocratic noblewoman Gabrielle de Montserrat is married off to an abusive elderly baron. After her husband’s death, the young widow and her daughter are transported to Paris, where Gabrielle becomes entangled in the scandalous court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The plot thickens when Gabrielle, now the mistress of Count de Villers, rekindles the passion with her former flame, a politically connected lawyer on the Revolutionary Tribunal. Positioning her would-be lovers against the tumultuous backdrop of the French Revolution, Delors does an admirable job of depicting the tension, confusion, and volatility of an era when one false move could mean the guillotine. --Margaret Flanagan
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One of these was newcomer Catherine Delors. Her novel, Mistress of the Revolution may at first appear to be not much more than yet another novel set during the fall of the French monarchy, and the rise of the French Revolution and all of the adventure that would create. It's proved to be very fertile ground for novelists, and in recent years, there has been a real upsurge of interest in the period. Sadly, most of what gets published is not much more than trite modern romance dressed up in fancy clothes, and where authors betray their own lack of research with every word that their characters utter. And these sorts of novels were what have caused me to loose interest in the genre, swamped as it is with heaving bosoms and too perfect characters.
So it was with some trepidation that I ordered this from Amazon. But once I started reading, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. The story starts in a rather classic way, with a young girl of eleven being suddenly called home to the family chateau from a convent. Gabrielle de Montserrat is fresh and lovely, and just a bit on the determined side. While she knows that she has a duty to her family and class, there's a part of herself that aches to move beyond the constrants of her existance. If she just knew what they were.
Four years pass, with Gabrielle running wild, enjoying the company of her elder brother, the Marquis de Casel, and chafing under the restrictions of her rather cold-blooded mother. But a warm summer's day brings her to the notice of a young man, Andre-Pierre Coffinhal, an aspiring doctor from a nearby town. They're smitten by each other, and vow to be together in that mad rush of a first love, but when her brother finds out, Gabrielle is forced to marry someone else.
Her husband, while of appropriate rank and wealth, treats Gabrielle with seeming goodwill in public, but in private treats her with distain and brutality. The only good thing to come of the marriage is her beloved daughter Aimee, and Gabrielle vows to make her daughter's life very different than her own. But when the husband dies sudden, Gabrielle finds herself in genteel poverty, and being discarded by her own family.
What's a French girl to do but go to Paris? With a benefactress, the Duchess, and a ready wit of her own, Gabrielle finds the court at Versailles a new world indeed. Through Gabrielle's eyes we see her meet the influential and famous, and the Count de Villars, a handsome nobleman who tempts Gabrielle besides her fears to take a daring step.
But everything comes to an end when revolutionary fervour sweeps France, and Gabrielle has to make some choices of her own...
I must say, that while the plot of this one is rather standard -- girl meets boy, girl looses boy, girl struggles through many obstacles and so on -- I was thrilled by the fact that Catherine Delors uses reality to not just form the background of her novel, but also to motivate and build her characters. They speak in the style of the period, look at the world with the minds and attitudes of the time, and behave accordingly. While Gabrielle is very naive at the start -- how many mature teenagers do we really know? -- she does learn from her experiences, growing into a woman that we can both like and sympathize with. It's this handling of her characters that really makes this novel shine for me, these are all flesh and blood people, who have reasons for what they do.
One special moment for me was a discussion of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which really was a scandal at the time, and being that I have been a fan both the written and film versions, this was like having a little extra to the story. The author continues the same touches in clothing, music, and art of the time, with Gabrielle interacting with many of the known artists and writers of the time. It's something that really does help to flesh out the story.
All in all, I really liked this one. It's packed with plenty of drama, lots of description, and the author never loses sight of the time and place, and especially of her characters. I won't be a bit surprised if this is one of my top ten novels for the year. In any case, I hope that Ms. Delors continues to write, this is a very promising start!
And do keep the tissues handy for the last part of the novel.
Five stars overall.
I found myself really caring for the protagonist - Gabrielle is precocious and opinionated but smart enough to know to hold her tongue during times when education in a woman was either considered an outrageous flaw (among the nobility), or a definitive giveaway of her status as a ci-devant or ex-aristocrat (among the Revolutionaries). With undertones of the Revolution brewing, the rules of the game were changing every day and what was acceptable one day was unacceptable the next, so adaptability to the troubling times was an essential survival tool, as the slightest misstep could easily cost one's life. The way in which Robespierre and other Revolutionary leaders went about seeking out the blood of the aristocrats is reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, or even of the Holocaust when Jews were hiding out in neighbors' basements to escape the Nazis. Gabrielle's character is the perfect lens through which to view the events as they unfold, as she has dealings with Aristos and Jacobins alike, which provides the reader with ample perspectives on the French Revolution.
In order to further explore the idea of the mistress, one must first recognize that back in 18th century France, there was no such thing as casual dating. As a woman, one was expected to marry for her family's benefit, which generally meant being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Indeed families literally did sell their daughters; most sealed the engagement deal with an ample dowery, a large sum of monetary goods that would "buy" the girl's place into her new family. If she was lucky there was a brief courtship period, then she was betrothed (engaged), and finally she was married into the family of her parents' choosing. Anything outside of this arrangement was considered scandalous and could easily lead to the lady's disgrace, as respectable women were expected to enter into their marriages virgins. Once a woman had successfully bore her husband a few heirs, in Court society it was sometimes acceptable for the woman to take a lover, as her husband had likely already been doing for years. It really depended on the particular relationship. But often times a widow had no choice; if she was bankrupt with little means at her husband's death, she might rely on the kindness and monetary support of a gentleman "protector" to look after her welfare as well as that of her now fatherless children.
The "kept woman" complex basically breaks down into two categories. First there is what we would today call a "girlfriend", a female engaging in a loving relationship with a man. The man in question may or may not already have a wife - the presence of a spouse really did not impede an 18th century man from taking a mistress. Aristocratic marriages were rarely love matches so extramarital affairs were common. The second category was essentially a high class courtesan, or in modern day equivocation, a woman with a sugar daddy. In some regards, either of these two situations liberated a woman and gave her independence, in another sense, she was less financially stable, as her suitor could decide to drop her at any moment and potentially leave her in dire straits. It was very risky to become a mistress, though it did allow for more personal freedoms than the role of "wife" afforded. Gabrielle has to decide which role is right for her, all the while navigating the rocky waters of this crucial turning point in France's history.