Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors possesses all the elements of the finest modern historical fiction. Beautifully written, the reader is carried immediately into the France of the past. The main characters are very human, with foibles, sins, strengths, and potential for redemption. It is obvious that the author immersed herself in the art, music, drama and literature of the time; the atmosphere of the story exudes authenticity without being pedantic. With some aspects of a contemporary bodice-ripper, it is ultimately a tale of enduring love, love which devastates and transforms amid societal chaos and personal passions.
In many ways, Mistress of the Revolution is highly reminiscent of eighteenth century tragic romances such as Manon Lescaut and Les Liaisons dangereuses, involving psychological struggles in which innocence and beauty are exploited. The lapse of faith and morals which came to characterize so much of the ancien-régime is exposed as one of the factors which fed discontent and bred the Revolution. When the Catholic religion was attacked during the Revolution it was not out of the blue; the carelessness and hypocrisy of many generations opened the floodgates, in spite of the sincere fervor of many believers, who then became martyrs.
The heroine of Mistress of the Revolution is a sweet but utterly hapless girl from an ancient but bizarrely dysfunctional family in the mountains of Auvergne. Raised in a convent, Gabrielle is spirited and modest with a strong sense of right and wrong. At fifteen she accepts the marriage proposal of an idealistic young physician, Pierre-André Coffinhal. Her family, however, rejects the idea of her marrying a commoner and instead force Gabrielle into wedlock with her cousin, the middle-aged Baron de Peyre. If the Baron had been a literate man, one would suspect him to be a fervent admirer of the Marquis de Sade, due to the treatment which he inflicts upon Gabrielle, beginning on the wedding night. Such is the extent of his physical and psychological abuse that Gabrielle feels that her soul has died. She prays for deliverance, lighting a candle before the Virgin in church. Mercifully, the Baron drops dead.
Gabrielle then finds herself a penniless widow with a baby daughter. She contemplates becoming a nun like her sister, but fears losing custody of her child. Circumstances bring her to Paris, where she becomes the mistress of a wealthy nobleman. Deprived of true love, Gabrielle turns to pleasure, but guilt and emptiness leave her no peace. Meanwhile, France plummets into Revolution, a Revolution which will bring her once again into the path of her former fiancé, Pierre-André, who has become a committed Jacobin.
Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette appear at brief intervals in the book. The reader is allowed to view them not so much as they actually were but as the French people had come to see them. Gabrielle looks to the new regime to liberate her from her miseries only to find that the old corruptions and abuses are replaced by terror and violence. In their zeal to establish a republic based on virtue, the revolutionary leaders become petty tyrants, with iron-clad rules and regulations, even as the old traditions and values are cast aside. The survival of her loved ones becomes top priority as Gabrielle struggles to retain her integrity and humanity in spite of everything.
The novel makes it abundantly clear that the seeds of modernity were not only planted during the Revolution of 1789, but brought to partial fruition, at the cost of innumerable lives. Yet it was also a time of heroic self-sacrifice, often on the part of the most unlikely characters. Whatever opinions a person has about the French Revolution in general, Mistress is an engrossing read for anyone interested in that era. I would especially recommend it for those who relish a love story which wrings both heart and soul.
(*Mistress of the Revolution was sent to me as a gift from the author Catherine Delors.) Share