misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Catherine Delors's Mistress of the Revolution aka Les Lecons de Tenebres

Dear friends and readers,

The past couple of weeks I've been absorbed on and off (while in the car, waiting for the doctor, in the evening), snatching Time back from Morpheus (in the early dawn hours) reading Catherine Delors's first novel, Mistress of the Revolution.  it's just the sort of novel I like best of all things:  central female narrator, fictional retrospective memoir with a strong emphasis on the subjective experience of the heroine, set in the later 18th century in France.  And imagine my delight when my hunches about fundamental sources for the book -- mostly for character (beyond the author's own implied self) and generic parts of the story line the memoirs of Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin, the memoirs of Grace Dalrymple Elliot -- were confirmed as right by Catherine Delors herself. A historical novel is supposed to be a recreation of the earlier era: this book is a recreation of 18th century novels, and the Revolutionary memoirs recently called Blood Sisters.  An important novel whose characters have equivalents here is LaClos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Jean-Antoine Houdon's  (174101828) Winter (1783, based on his wife when he first married her) would have been a superb cover image for Gabrielle (see below)

Perhaps set against a scary imprisoning landscape, a castle-prison like Dillon's husband and she spent time in:

As I have been doing lately, I wrote about the book as I read (to WWTTA and ECW), and so here provide a record of that reading in six sets of musings.  I show that Mistress of the Revolution is an excellent historical novel, an engaging women''s fictional memoir which speaks to others; a parable about the French revolution -- and wild gothic romance.

The first few days wherein we discover that a central earlier woman "behind" this book is Lucie Dillon

Lucie Dillon (1770-1848).

I've begun Catherine's book and am well past 100 and want to recommend it as unusual and with real strengths from its unusualness. What is unusual is the heroine is really given a wretched rotten deal by society.  She is not allowed to get a decent education when young; taught just a few accomplishments plus how to do accounts in the convent and then removed to a cold home where she is kept at a distance from her relatives.  She is forced into marrying a brutal man who brutalizes her; when he luckily (or the novel would not be able to get on as popular) dies, she finds he has left her little money.  Only if she produced a male heir would she have had access to any. Then she is under terrific pressure to spend the rest of her life in a nunnery. Aain she escapes this by luck (again the novel devices come in) and now she is on her way to work as a lady's companion with the luck of being able to bring her child with her.

While novel softening is going on, this is far truer and stronger to experience that most romances of this kind. Indeed the story is presented in ways that bring home this larger structural social and sexual and economic patterning so we cannot say well this is an individual instance.  The man the heroine wanted to marry we see was also domineering and when he can't get her, he moves on with his life.

The book is in other words strongly feminist.

We also see the ruthless power of aristocrats -- the family could have had the heroine's lover broken on the wheel.

It is also not emasculated in the way of many romance novels. It is commonplace for these books (and films like them too) to have central males who are all kindness and gentle.  Jane Austen's males are not violent even one little bit.  Their cadishness, their selfishness and the rest of their bad traits are not rooted in a display of physical life at all. The book presents the male as driving towards having genital sex as primary motivation, and rough it is. 

In this it reminds me of Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin (which I loved), only Slammerkin belongs to a subkind of romance where the heroine is made to be superlow in society.  The whore, the woman of the streets, the beggar. The type is familiar from Moll Flanders and Fanny Hills. The problem here is while this plays home to a reader's sense of herself as vulnerable and the romance of wild life and escape,  the heroine can also be dismissed as "not me."  By contrast, Catherine's heroine is middle class, upper really (again this is romancing too), but someone whose niche is not that far from the reader's imagining.   She is also likened to her servants; one her husband impregnates, she is kind to, is married off to male peasant. The husband never thinks of this baby one bit, and would have left her to be ejected from the house and her life ruined.

On this Catherine replied:

"So yes, Gabrielle is a noblewoman, better off in many regards than Fanny Hill or Moll Flanders, but even a woman of her caste faced dire choices when for some reason she lost her social standing (refusal to enter a convent, as in Diderot's The Nun, then genteel poverty because of her family's abandonment and her failure to produce an heir.) Some noblewomen were far worse off too: look at Madame de La Tour du Pin's mother-in-law, who had been locked up in a convent by her husband, and was only allowed to return briefly to attend her son's marriage. So many other cases of "scandalous" women jailed at the request of their families/husbands.

I wanted to bring that to the fore, and show why so many nobles were staunch supporters of the Revolution in its early phases.

I asked Catherine if Mistress of the Revolution was the book's immediate or first title and several other questions.  It quickly seemed to me to be blah and telling nothing of the book for real; in fact misleading and the cover illustration also worse than irrelevant:  titillating. 

She answers my questions as follows:

1) did you have a title you thought up yourself?  this one just doesn't begin to convey anything of the quality of the book or its subject or feel;

Oh yes! I wanted to call it Lessons of Darkness, from the Leçons de Ténèbres, a piece of music I love, part of the Easter lithurgy. I was shot down, of course. Too much of a downer, we want a happy heroine, etc. At first I hated Mistress of the Revolution because Gabrielle is not the mistress of her own fate, only of a few men who abuse her. Then I got used to this title...

2) did anyone give you a chance for a cover illustration that might have conveyed the quality of the book.  The Fragonard just is a image seen endless times. It should have had some iron castle or some deadly village, nunnery, Paris in the later 18th century.

Castles or landscapes don't cut it with major publishers. The cover has to be a woman. The initial offerings were much worse: http://blog.catherinedelors.com/birth-of-a-book-cover-a-case-study/

I had to come up with something in a panic, and picked the Fragonard in a few hours to escape what Dutton wanted to use

3) did you write any of it in French?  is there a possibility  of a French translation by you?  as I read I feel the sentences were they written in French would be tighter, more forcible and effective.   No, this was written in English, and I would do a French translation if a French publisher were prepared to publish it. So far, no bites.

It seemed to me that week and now that I've finished the book that Lessons of Darkness is a perfect title for this book.  The problem with Mistress of the Revolution is it tells us nothing about the text. It's just so blah; it's not positive either.  It reminds me of so many titles; one that comes to mind is a biography of Germane de Stael -- and it's male-centered too.  Chantal Thomas and the woman who win the prix kind of prizes get to call their books the right title.  The picture is the same.  I note that Broadview Press and some of the Austen books have places, houses, and that first house the heroine is take to with her harridan of a mother and basically vicious older brother is like a cage.  Your book does just not have a package that tells the prospective reader anything about it.  They're not even genre-directed since they are too familiar. Emma Donoghue's books signify woman's novel-historical novel of this particular era (later 18th century).

As I've told Catherine  to my ears it reads like a French novel rather strangely written in English. Repeatedly I come across sentences which I feel impulses about to say to myself well, if that were in French, how incisive and forceful it would be. How much more passionate that line if the long lingering kind of English structures (which fan out) were tightened in the French subject-pronouns-verb pattern with their more enigmatical connectives for prepositional phrases.  Apparently the real title should be "Lecons de tenebres." Qutoing Catherine now:  "a piece of music I love, part of the Easter lithurgy."

The Fragonard image on the cover also is just contentless in effect because it's a image seen endless times. It should have had some iron castle or some deadly village, nunnery, Paris in the later 18th century.  The first house the heroine is taken to with her harridan of a mother and basically vicious older brother is like a cage and is used as one when she tries to marry for love.

That's good because the book shows how the Catholic church worked to shore up the power of the establishment. We see how the priest uses confession to reinforce the power structure. Such a title would "signal" to me perhaps "gothic" and dark intrigues.  One could call Radcliffe's novels and Sand's Consuelo (which has a dark underground labyrinthe and alludes to Radcliffe's Udolpho) dark intrigues and gothics

Religious scene from Les Liaisons Dangereuses

About a week later or the second week's postings:

I've carried on reading Delors's Mistress of the Revolution and am at the same time watching the 1997 BBC Tom Jones, listening to Fielding's book as read aloud by David Case, and am struck by some parallels. I could probably see as many (more) between Misress of the Revolution and Charlotte Smith's Old Manor House or a Burney novel but it happens this is the one I'm doing just now.  So I'll use it to describe Catherine's. I hope others have read or know the book or 1997 film adaptation.

To the books and film:  I mentioned I liked Catherine's novel because unlike most novels of this era it really shows what political, economic and social structures do to women.  Among other things, they have no recourse to anyone but family and friends and no income of their own, especially when middle class or at least not enough to live on and it's socially unacceptable and dangerous to live alone. Men can beat their wives.

All this leads to Gabrielle coerced into marriage with a man who beats her; when he dies, she inherits barely enough for a meagre cottage because she produced no heir; she is driven to consider a nunnery for an escape, but ends a man's mistress as the best deal.  I should say to qualify what I did yesterday: that Villers, this man is characterized as gentle, decent, not violent, not abrasive, abusive, and lets her have her freedom (within limits).  This is a typical male hero for a woman's romance, only Villers will not marry our heroine.

I enjoy Catherine's imitation of an 18th century novel; the motives I know from novels literally written in the 18th century are all here. It's enjoyable to see what I have learned is true about the period put into vivid scenes. I love description too (of the countryside, of the love-making -- tasteful I'd put it), and the heroine is characterized deeply enough so I can recognize, identify. She is a kind of Elinor Dashwood more than a Madame Tourvel type; perhaps closer to Germaine de Stael's Delphine come to think of it..

Beyond the memoirs of de la Tour Du Pin, I see imitations of Les liaisons Dangereuses. Viller's aunt is a version of Madame de Rochemond. I'm waiting for a Merteuil to show up.  Problems are the heroine is taken in too quickly without enough motivation; some of the characters insufficiently real or characterized (it goes too fast, more time was needed).

The cast of characters for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, gathered together in the gardens in the 1989 Valmont

That it is an imitation of a 18th century novel was confirmed to me by seeing the same types in Tom Jones the movie -- to a lesser extent the book. Fielding is nowadays criticized for being insufficiently feminist -- he makes a joke of rape, tends to show false accusations, no chaste heroine is rape.  More:  he does make a joke of brutal men, and our attention is as much focused on Mrs Fitzgerald's sexual infidelity (but how was she to escape) as her Irish husband's brutality.

I am loving the film for despite the speed and distancing, the film is bringing all this out.  Enough time is spent to see Mrs Fitzgerald (like Delors's Gabrielle) needs to escape. Alas, we see no bruises, but her terror is real.  Lindsay Duncan's Lady Bellastan is such another as Madame de Merteuil, but Lord Fellamar reminds me of the brutal brother of Gabrielle. Carelessly insouciantly he frames Tom Jones and tries to have him pressed on Lady Bellaston's orders. (We see how the women is the fiend in the mens' books.)  Catherine's woman who is Gabrielle's mistress is simply a decent sort. Fellamar's rape is real and Samantha Morton exhibits powerful distress calling him crazed. And we feel he is an upper class monster, taught to be that way and allowed (as is Western) in the way of the men in Stael and Mistress of the Revolution.

Very touching in the film is Mrs Honor.   When we see Sophie dragged away and Honor comes out and looks so desolate and turns around and the door is shut, how we feel for her. It's the way she holds her hands, her hair done up in ties.

When Squire Western turns her out, she has no where to go. We see her knock on closed doors; she has her hands hanging down in a thin dress, and her hair in those tight curlers.  This kind of sympathy is not in Fielding.  So one can see how the film is a recreatino from a modern standpoint of the original book.  It "touches" hands with Mistress of the Revolution repeatedly where we see many women, stranded.

The 1997 film uses the living narrator to connect and distance as I've said (he directs the traffic, comments, interprets ironically); it also uses voice-over and epistolary narrative and letters.  There have not been enough of these in Mistress of the Revolution.  But I'm only a third of the way through.

Third round:

I can understand again how Catherine would not like this title, as Gabrielle is anything but a powerful mistress.  Yes Villers, her supe-rrich lover, is as long as he has his way ever so peaceable and kind, but he has his way -- having everything on his side in their world (money, property, the laws).  He has other mistresses, and when she tries to leave him permanently, she finds she cannot easily. She tries to rent a cottage, and voila there he is (aided and abetted by other people who want to please him).  She still has so little money -- jewels don't go far for real (in Richardson's Clarissa the heroine is every whipping out a new ring and selling it; she'd have had to have 20 fingers each loaded with diamonds ....)

later 18th century illustration of Paul et Virginie:  Gabrielle is saved by Pierre-Andre, she clings to him

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie has now been alluded to at least:  Gabrielle like so many heroines of 18th century novels is given a period of deep reading, this time by Villers. She's even taught math and a governess is hire for Aimee.  (grinning)

Catherine makes the point that after all as Gabrielle grows older the last thing she wants is to marry this man; now he is willing to marry her and would like to impregnate her (nail her to him -- and they understood they were doing that; Claire Tomalin discerns this in the very Rev George Austen, Jane's father).  Marriage Gabrielle has learned is bondage, and she does not want pregnancy, that too is bondage.  (Studies have shown working class women in the 19th century did not want to marry; they had to be coerced through pressures of the new respectability.)

The novel depends here (that Gabrielle pulls this off, does not begin to get pregnant regularly) on the idea that Gabrielle can get the Duke to use coitus interruptus and has available to him some form of sheath.  Is that so?  I have read Byron imported condoms and got them at 5 pounds a piece.

The story becomes complicated as the revolution moves into its first phases and the Duke become involved in the National Assembly.  Gabrielle is characterized as wholly for the revolution; this is a tad idealistic, perhaps anachronistic, for it feels like I'm reading the thoughts of a modern liberal democrat here (just teasing).

I like some lines very much now and again. This one:  "The banks of my childhood were receding as I drifted away, lost on unknown waters" (p. 202).

To conclude in looking at Antoine's Houdon's sculpture of Winter (based on his young wife), it struck me this is a good image for the cover of Catherine's book.  Gabrielle is supposed to be beautiful and modest, and she is (oh is) she vulnerable as well as virtuous for real.  Her brother accuses her of living in "sin and dissipation" it's laughable.  I'm not suggesting a non-sexy image either, as below the waits it's quietly salacious, or at least andogynous in implications (look at that cloth):

Full shot of image at beginning of blog

Gabrielle is ashamed and Delors meant us to see her as more than modest, but genuinely shamed.  There are moments where Gabrielle tells us about how she feels in front of other women after she becomes Villers' mistress where this idea is made explicit. The problem is (I think) there is no scene between her and another woman to show this. This shame is one of the reasons she originally wants to marry Villers, also it helps keep her with him.  The early modern word for this is "shamefast" (held back by shame is the idea).

She is a traditional heroine -- not quite vulnerable in the way of Madame de Tourvel from LaClos's novel, more in a line like Elinor Dashwood; I'd compare her to Amelia Mansfield in Sophie Cottin's book.  She does have some 20th century anachronistic political thoughts but it's impossible not to.  One must write from the now.

I'd love to read Hillary Mantel's novel of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, to compare the treatment of the French revolution.  Mantel's is dramatized through Danton and the revolutionaries. It would be a very different world.  I've tried to get into it, but it feels too wooden or constructed at  first. I have to try on a long drive somewhere.

Fourth set of musings:

The prostitutes in a casual moment, from 1991 BBC Clarissa
Part of the pleasure of reading this novel is its a historical novel and imitates earlier ones and genuinely engages with their issues -- as well as ours.  I will add her a small critique on top of what I wrote yesterday: now that the revolution has begun there are explicit references to Gabrielle's sense of shame -- in her attitude towards Pierre-Andre and that abject letter (in character however) she sends him and the way Villers still manages to exert control on her beyond his money.  So my critique is we don't have enough scenes between her and other women to show this corrosive kind of experience or focusing on other women the way we have focusing on men.  Think of the humiliations Austen visits on her heroines from upper class women, or her gift for passing slights; such things sting deep because it is between women. We feel betrayed.  Not enough dramatization of scenes with women.

I like the way Catherine through the story explains, justifies the hostility to Marie Antoinette. We see what a lousy politician she was :).

I'm now up to Chapter 55, and have gotten the heroine into the midst of the revolution, which includes her being at one of the street massacres and her husband's brother/friend having had his head cut off and placed on a pike.

To the question of contraceptive:  how many upper class French women availed themselves of these contraceptive techniques?  Do we know?  it's an important question since people just below imitated, and people just below that at least heard about and had some access to, and so on. You begin to see some women have two children and no more in upper class circles in England by mid-century (e.g., Mary Wortley Montagu).

Villers is basically a skunk; it seems to me all the men Gabrielle gets involed with until the pox-ridden ugly man, Morsan, are domineering controllers, including Pierre-Andre.  She would have been no better off with him as a husband, in fact just as bad as Villers had she married Villers.  This is in line with what Stael shows us in her novels: men educated to be tyrants will become so.  The education at the time brought out the worst in many men; this theme is reprised English style in Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Catherine has Antoinette as more than a poor politician: she genuinely adhered firmly to all the values backing her group as sancrosanct and superrich privileged, and she did not hide this.  In a way she never see her learning to hide it; what she realizes in the end is the literal power base of the state is military force.  Beliefs she had thought would secure her would not as all it takes is a group of people not believing in them seizing power, then fear and personal interest kicks in and no one or few will lift a finger to help for whom helping is against their direct interest. A hard lesson Anne Halkett in her autobiography and (amazed in a sense) description of the fall from power of Charles I, his beheading and the installation of the Cromwellian order. 

What I like about Catherine's book is its serious interweaving of a feminist position drawn able from documents. I like her depiction of the revolution even if the partial aristocratic one of a woman not involved directly -- it's true that a Gabrielle would have to sit home and wait for news.

That was Charlotte Lennox's problem in Female Quixote, too, Catherine: if you have a realistic heroine in a novel about public events unless she is a saloniere or demi-monde, she will be a watcher on the sides -- unless as happens to Gabrielle, she gets caught up in a massacre or imprisonment. People might like to know Catherine imagined her heroine throwing herself between her brother and lover in a duel.  I don't know if they would have permitted this for real,but it does get her involved. (I think D'Aurevilly has a scene something like this in Vieille Maistresse only the woman is simply allowed to be a bystander:  a number of men can stop a woman from hurling herself inbetween two duellists.

Still I like a heroine at the center, best, and will say publicly, I may prefer Mistress of the Revolution. I can read these romance historical novels when they have males at the center, but part of my real pleasure comes from the woman narrator and woman-centered tale. I'm not much for adventure stories, and  it's rare I like mysteries as such.  They have to be more than that

Fifth round:   here I discover Grace Dalrymple Elliot, her memoirs, and Rohmer's movie, Le duc et l'anglaise are "sources."

Grace Dalrymple Elliot by Gainsborough -- the height of her beauty

I've gotten up to Chapter 73 of 87, so near to the end.  I did like the depiction of Gabrielle's experience of the revolution:  it's very like Grace Elliot's in perspective (Rohmer's movie has made her well-known, Le Duc et l'Anglaise), except Gabrielle was not involved with such powerful men and her experience more continually wretched and harrowing. I'm not sure the need for that certificate is not presented somewhat anachronistically:  it's we or memories of those we have known that have made this dread of not having "your papers" in order so important.  But it does work for drama.

Now I'm going to make a complaint of sorts which is simply romance reading:  I don't like that she goes back to Pierre-Andre. It bothers me how abject she is, and that she could love this guy. I'm not sure I believe it. 

For those not reading the novel, Gabrielle originally loved Pierre-Andrew; was forcefully parted from him and forced to marry a brutal husband.  Gabrielle's family threatened to have Pierre-Andre broken on the wheel.  He is bourgeois, a lawyer and now at the revolution has risen to be a respected judge who sends a lot of people to their death.  He is as domineering, controlling and jealous a man as Gabrielle's lover, Villers (now dead in a massacre) and her husband too.  After he humiliates, castigates and threatens her, he does provide her with needed papers (dangerous for him) but he also becomes her lover and -- here's my quarrel -- we are to see her as loving him and happy.

Well yuk. Nah. Nyet. "My" heroine shouldn't do that -- she could (I agree) go to bed with him, but she should have a hard time keeping to herself how much she hates this guy now.   I don't mind that Gabrielles with Pierre-Andre at this point, or even if she marries him, only that we are told she loves him.   As I say, in a way it fits her character and certainly the era (men were brought up to be tyrants, to feel they had every right to control a woman) but humanely speaking whatever the mores, I sort of feel there are feelings people have which transcend one level of manners and actions and go deeper.  And when someone treats you so humilatingly and harshly, people (I've a hunch) never forget and deeply resent it.

Catherine will tell me I'm anachronistic here :). Go ahead :). It's all right.  But I can't see this loving this guy.  It makes for nice love-making scenes I suppose and some might say it's possible or probable, but if so, more time should have been spent on Gabrielle's inner life to make this tendency to abjection (which we've seen before in her letters) acceptable, understandable.  She does (like other heroines in these 18th century book) forgive or try to help the lousy brother.  (I would not forgive though I might be driven to try to help.)

I like how she keeps close to her sister.  More needed to be done in characterizing the child.  *A lost opportunity to show that child's trauma* -- and possible sequel into the 1830s :). Instead of these males the girl child tossed to and fro, dead father, a brute, now these cold lovers who only take her on as they take her mother to bed.

I don't know if she will end up with Pierre-Andre, only that she doesn't die. Very like Moll Flanders and all retrospective novels since we know this much from the start: our narrator-heroine has survived.  Many thanks to Catherine who tells me there is a scene to come where Aimee will speak out at last.

I don't judge Gabriella for what she does or doesn't do for her daughter.  She's having a hard enough time surviving, and the times were such she would see all about her not insisting women make the center of their lives their children. I'm with Elisabeth Badinter on that by the way.

I prefer sad endings as well as endings where there is no resolution in the events, as that seems to me lifelike and true.  The shaping of the patterns of the book provide the aesthetic close even if what is said is qualified, ambiguous, left open-ended.

Sixth and last week:

A death scene from Les Liaisons Dangereuses -- very tame in comparison to the deaths here

I finished the book.

The problem with posting about a book before you've come to the end, is it can surprise you or you can change your mind as the whole experience comes home to you.  So, now I've done I've decided that after all Gabrielle's relationship with Pierre-Andre rings home to me as not only possible, and within the terms of the fiction true or believable, but rising to something better than that.

In Janet Radway's famous survey, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Culture, she asserts (and attempts to prove) that women read romances to work out, rework the troubles and compromises they endure in life.  The happy ending is to uplift and comfort, and it's important it be believable enough, for before that the romance which matters and is reread in many forms, presents to the woman reader aspects of her own life.  For some this is therapeutic, especially if the heroine wins out in some way after all.  For some it's simply the validation of recognition.  Well as I read Gabrielle's acceptance of her situation with Pierre-Andre, yes, I recognize myself and my acceptance of my situation.  What else is she to do?  Where turn? She is given no other livable option but him, and without going further or becoming personal, while my situation is not concretely parallel it's analagous and I can see it.

Thus the fiction works for me; it does its job.

Radway tries to present her insight as coming from what the women told her. The great problem with her book is she takes as true or on surface value what the women say. Of course they are not on oath, and it's very like a sex survey: they pose and say what they want her to think is their identity.  Most of her insights really come from herself and this is one of them.

Where this ending falls down for me, is it's not inward enough, not enough inward life presented so as I understand or feel on my pulses the lived experience which led to Gabrielle's "love" for this man.  Similarly no where near enough about her and her daughter and her and other women.  For the most part (Gabrielle's mother is an exception), the relationships with other women in the novel are idealised: they are plaster-thin helpers. For me this is a real weakness in the book too.

I compare its function and genre here to Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin, the last novel of this 18th century historical type I can remember reading just now.  There the inward life was paid more attention to; less happened in the plot-design, much less history. 

Some supreme versions of these books are those by Margaret Forster.  Fran mentioned Lady's Maid's Bell:  I sat up for a few nights, I would look forward to the night when I could return to it.  Most recently her book circling round Gwen Johns held me in the same way. I don't dispute that women can have positive relationships; they do in part but these must be there and part of the world presented as they are of enormous importance in women's lives, even if not all of us like to see it, as it's often painful (especially mother-daughter, sister and other relative relationships) with much betrayal as life's decisions force themselves on women.

I liked the ending with Pierre-Andre -- very gruesome and grotesque the way she follows his body, caresses the bloody  severed head, an attempt to show the utter madness of the time, what crazed killing can bring out.  I've been told stories of crazed behavior by people who either did or did not (then I was told by others) survive the concentration/slave labor/extermination camps of WW2.

I liked its sober feel, and especially the brother refusing to take Gabrielle in.  Early on in the book we see Pierre-Andre's brothers refuse him.  It reminded me of another romance-novel I read recently:  Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, and before that his South.  We see just how hard and cool and intensely egoistic every one is and how they operate.  (I may have not have mentioned that my daughter, Isabel, has finally had a win: she's been accepted to do an MA at Queens College, CUNY.  One problem will be cost of living: I asked my mother a few months on if she would allow Isabel to live with her for 9 months in one year and another 6 on the off chance Isabel made Queens as my mother lives a bus ride away; we'd pay board; several years ago Laura and her then husband needed a place to stay while looking for a place to live in NYC. Both times my mother produced lies -- she hasn't got Gabrielle's brother's guts -- but the answer was really no, I can't be bothered, and this last time a subliminal sneer.  One reason Laura's marriage broke up was the strain of where they ended up living.)

I probably have not expressed my criticism of the presentation of women in this novel clearly or well enough. I don't mind that a few of the women do not support her. In fact quite a number do.  The Countess or Duchess who takes Gabrielle in is essential in allowing her to escape the nunnery; the poor servants who help her are essential in enabling her to escape prisons, guillotines, starvation; her nun sister who dies.  It's also not that the women are not also awful, for her mother was a horror, and her other sister; my critique is I don't find any of them believable enough. They are not sufficiently there presences. There needed to be more scenes with them, and they needed to be presented more complexly. Ditto Aimee. I liked at the end how she turned on the mother, but it was (I felt) somewhat theoretical; it was the right gesture in the novel at that point but not felt sufficiently complexly somehow. There needed to be more dramatized scenes with women that are believable; more giving them an inward genuine life. 

This is the Jane Eyre type novel where the central figure is the subjective woman, but you must somehow bring alive all the other characters. This was done for the men in Gabrielle's life but not the other women.

I also did not care for the very ending which married her off to an Earl. It was too good to be true; she is continually having this kind of sudden good luck -- as when the Duchess took her in.  To take a parallel:  in Farewell my queen the narrator now has a minimal kind of job that enables her to survive with respectability. I realize there's a long tradition of these sudden upturns, from Austen to Burney on. I realize that women are said to prefer the happy ending -- Gabrielle is more than a survivor, Linda.  She ends up an English aristocrat!  not me. I read a novel last month where I was paid to review it: the ending was a qualified survival for real.  Brooklyn and South did not destroy the heroine, but we see a hard lesson in life given both.

I don't like unearned fairy godmother or godfather bounties.  They can irritate me very much. This one did not because of the sober letter from the brother, and it only came at the end, and so much else was devastation and truth.

If I were to characterize this novel the way Linda did -- the parable I see it as part of -- it's a strong condemnation of the way women were treated in the ancien regime, with real vibes that they are treated this way still to some extent; like many women's novels (Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall came to mind, also Louise D'epinay's Montbrillant, Stael's Delphine, Edgeworth's Leonora) we see how men are educated to be awful; educated to be macho, to be egoists, to think they have the right to control a woman and to accuse her of sexual looseness if she wants to live as freely as they do and to use the power they are given.

But finally it is a parable against the French revolution -- I hope this does not offend Catherine.  I think it shows the madness of what happened in the way I suggested above. Catherine does show how it was a real and understandable reaction to a vicious world and order, but she also presents it as worse than useless, nothing improved, nothing obtained. So I'd put Catherine's book in with the other contemporary memoirs of the era, the kind of thing Yalcom writes about in her Blood Sisters.  Lessons of Darkness. Lecons de Tenebres.

Claude Lorraine, a castle

Let me say this might be true.  Very little in the world has been improved by horrible wars, sometimes I think there's been hardly any progress for real in social relationships, only progress through technological breakthroughs and science.   I wanted to read Hilary Mantel's to see a book which, Madame Roland like (to to speak) took the other tack.

So, it's a real achievement this book, very strong first novel. Catherine should be very proud and I'm sure she is. I admire it.  She doesn't need me to tell her what an achievement this fiction is. It's not pastiche; it's not a sequel; it's a genuinely researched historical novel which stands up to some scrutiny -- not altogether because it is also romance, romancing. Like Radcliffe's heroines, our heroine ends up a Top Female in the social order once again. Not likely at all.  (I couldn't do this.  I once began a novel and discovered how inward I am; how little I care about the outward world  and I'm too raw; one I tried an autobiography and boy was it grim so I stopped for who would read this?)

A fine intelligent thoroughly worked-up book which speaks to women.

Tags: gothic, historical novels, women's art, women's memoirs, women's novels

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