Sunday 7 June 2020

(More!) Novels of the French Revolution

Back in October, to celebrate the release of Ribbons of Scarlet (2019)—a multi-authored historical novel about the women of the French Revolution—I strayed out of the nineteenth century and into the late eighteenth, with a round up of the best novels I’d read set during that tumultuous period.

I reviewed Andrew Miller’s Pure (2011), Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992), Daphne du Maurier’s The Glassblowers (1963), and the most iconic of all novels of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Eight months later, I’m back, with thoughts on three more novels, which take this bloody conflict as their backdrop.

Three more "revolutionary" reads

Mistress of the Revolution, Catherine Delors (2008)

Delors’s novel centres on noblewoman Gabrielle—first, on the trials and tribulations of her childhood, doomed adolescent love and horrific forced marriage, and, later, on how she becomes embroiled in the events of the revolution. Gabrielle’s lot is a believable, if dramatic, one, but her character is underdeveloped and she seems to offer little beyond her attractiveness (her main bargaining chip throughout the book). There’s plenty of sexual content to titillate and horrify by turns, and Delors covers a lot of ground historically, incorporating some great details. Yet, on occasion, passages of political exposition become a little skim-worthy.

Becoming Josephine, Heather Webb (2013)

Webb’s protagonist’s biography would strain our credulity were it not true! This novel takes the future Empress Josephine as its subject, from her childhood in Martinique, to her terrible first marriage (there’s a theme here), to her love with Napoleon, to the pressures mounted on her to produce an heir, and beyond. Josephine was placed to be a great observer of the revolution, so these sections in particular are well wrought, and the nuances of her relationship with Napoleon come through. However the later parts of her life are a little rushed. I wish Webb had ended sooner, so the book had a clear novelistic arc vs. bordering on dramatized biography.

Little, Edward Carey (2018)

Carey’s Little (my most recent revolutionary read) is a very different beast. Like Webb, he takes a real person, who had a front row seat at the revolution, as his main character. In this case, it’s Marie Grosholtz, still famous the world over as Madame Tussaud. However, Carey isn’t constrained by history. His novel reads as an imaginative response to the art of waxworks, against the backdrop of a violent period when real bodies were frequently dismembered. His Marie (referred to by other characters as “Little” due to her diminutive size) is obsessed with bodies—their innards and their outer flaws and features. Illustrated by the author, this isn’t a read for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached, but it captures the madness and horror of the French Revolution, as well as the obsession with objects (clothes, wigs, locks, wax figures), which gave so many eighteenth-century Parisians their livelihood.

Do you know of any more great books set during the French Revolution? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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