Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Review: "Mistress of the Revolution"

Mistress of the Revolution is not the first female-centered novel I've reviewed on my Boychik Lit blog. My intention in picking up this book was to have fun dissecting a steamy chick-lit novel, a basis for comparison and contrast with male-centered fiction. The historical setting amid the turmoil of the French Revolution also promised political intrigue with gobs of gore. Now that I've read and reflected on this first novel from Catherine Delors, I regret to admit that I won't have the fun of teasing or ridiculing her effort. It is, sadly for the purposes of a fratirist with a warped sense of humor, nothing to laugh about.

Mistress of the Revolution is a masterful (mistressful?), serious literary work about the widely ignored--and unlearned--lessons of history. As the very best historical novels do, it reflects and highlights the political and social dramas of the present day. At its core, it's a story of class struggle and sexual politics.

So, let's talk about the sex, shall we? (Warning: spoilers follow!)

Main character and first-person narrator Gabrielle de Montserrat is a gorgeous young aristocrat who lacks a respectable dowry. She is high-born but from a family that has seen its wealth dissipate. If she wishes to realize the great expectations of her rank, she must therefore find some rich aristocrat to marry her. Her other socially acceptable choices are to live as a spinster with her family (if they will have her) or to become a nun. Her plight is the recurring dilemma of sexual politics: If she wants the good life, she must be willing to market her body and her charms. In this central element of its plot, the book is not much different in theme from the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, nor of chick-lit stories like Bridget Jones's Diary. The main character's all-important goal--which she must achieve or everything else in her life will suffer--is to become half of a power couple.

Throughout the book, which covers Gabrielle's story from ages fifteen to forty-six, she is dominated by men in a series of fundamentally monogamous relationships. And here's where Mistress of the Revolution departs from its traditional sisters: Not one of those men, including her primary love interest, is what you'd call sympathetic in the modern sense. All of them (and there's quite a collection) are cruel, vindictive batterers. They differ mainly in the degrees to which they bestow the occasional kindness or largesse on Gabrielle.

Before her arrogant older brother (and father substitute) can make a marriage bargain for her, teenage Gabrielle falls for a tall, dark commoner, Pierre-André Coffinhal. He's a promising young man trained as a physician, who will later study the law and become a judge in the revolutionary tribunal. In a contemporary story, her quest could end there. He's just the kind of young tyro our society applauds--the ambitious, self-made man. But back then, before the Revolution presumed to abolish social rank, his low birth makes the match unthinkable. Gabrielle ultimately agrees to follow her brother's direction and marry the corpulent, disgusting Baron de Peyre to spare Coffinhal from her brother's death threat.

As to sex, a contemporary diagnosis of Gabrielle's psyche doesn't require a medical degree--she's a rape victim. She is numb to pleasure, and will pretty much remain so throughout the book--except for some notably rare experiences. In this, she does not seem disappointed. Rather, as with her overall physical treatment at the hands of her male controllers, most of the time she seems to feel she gets no more nor less than she deserves.

Not long after fathering their daughter, Aimée, the Baron very conveniently dies. At that point in a modern story, Gabrielle would immediately seek out Pierre-André. In this story, she is too ashamed of her betrayal of him to even make the effort. Instead, through assiduous social climbing and good connections, Gabrielle becomes the high-class kept woman of the Count de Villers, who introduces her to the court at Versailles. Her reputation soars after her beauty and wit stir the jealousy of the Queen, the infamous Marie-Anoinette.

In the years she's involved with Villers, the Revolution erupts in Paris. (It is longer, bloodier, and more viciously irrational than I remembered from my meagre studies.) Although Villers in many ways is the most tender lover that Gabrielle will ever have, in his financial and emotional dealings with her he is an arrogant bully.

Rather late in the story, as the Patriots take over the city, the aristos, including Villers, are hunted down, subjected to mock trials, and slaughtered. Having passed up opportunities to emigrate, Gabrielle must disguise herself as a commoner and work as a seamstress to avoid the gallows. Coffinhal, now a judge and a close ally of the charismatic leader Robespierre, is working overtime sentencing scores of aristos to cruel and bloody deaths daily.

It's at this point--when Gabrielle's circumstances are the meannest and she's in and out of jail--that she and Coffinhal reconcile. Through his protection, she survives, although just barely.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is Coffinhal's unashamed brutality toward Gabrielle. Although well educated and exhibiting a sensitive nature at times, he's given to fits of righteous anger and physical violence--often directed at her. In this, the book bears no similarity at all to the bodice-ripper romance. When Gabrielle's relationship with Coffinhal is not a dream come true, it's a wicked nightmare.

And she puts up with it. Indeed, as she does throughout the book, she dismisses the abuse as expected, understandable, even deserved.

It's obvious from the book's meticulous detailing that it is incredibly well researched and authentic. But, according to Delors, the Gabrielle character is entirely fictional. The thing that I find fascinating is the author's boldness at not offering up the expected romantic arc, giving us a chilling portrait of female sensibility as it calculates what it must do to survive. There is not a single male star in Hollywood, now or ever, who would risk the ire of his fan base to behave on the screen as Coffinhal does at his worst toward this woman. I'm not enough of a scholar of history to know for sure, but I'm guessing that Gabrielle's resolution to her plight and the meanness of her existence, even at the height of society, are true to that time and place.

It does make me wonder, though, how much if anything has changed. Love, money, property--these are as intertwined and interdependent in today's world as ever.

Also remarkable, from a writer's technical viewpoint, is the impeccable prose style of this book. Delors is a native French speaker, and English is her second language. The book is written from Gabrielle's point of view in 1815, while exiled in England. Like Delors, Gabrielle writes in her adopted English. In the historical note in the book's endpapers, the author admits, "I strove to write this novel in the British English Gabrielle would have used in 1815." I find that it reads a lot like Balzac in translation, and I'm reminded of his A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), written in the 1830s, and treating, as Delors' book does so well, the dynamics of sexual politics trapped in the web of human history.

Post a Comment