I don’t remember reading ordinary children’s books while I was growing up. I was raised by my grandparents, who had some weird ideas about the upbringing of children and so I was encouraged to read Dickens and Austen almost as soon as I was able to read. It didn’t take me long to discover my grandmother’s huge stash of historical fiction and from the age of about seven onwards I was hooked on a diet of Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts and Margaret Irwin.
While my schoolfriends were reading books by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, I was immersed in the Castilian court of Ferdinand and Isabella, developing immense crushes on Henry V and George of Clarence and sowing the seeds of what was to be a life long obsession with eighteenth century France, Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution thanks to a youthful reading of ‘The Queen’s Confession‘ by Victoria Holt. I’ve already spoken on here about my love of the Catherine series by Juliette Benzoni, with its mesmerising violet eyed heroine.
As a teenager, my tastes matured just as tastes in historical fiction also changed and I swapped my Plaidys for Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, Susan Kay’s Legacy (the best novel about Elizabeth I that I have ever read, I still have my copy and drag it out once a year to have a reread), Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII, Elizabeth Buchan’s Daughters of the Storm (a cracking read even if she basically ripped off the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin and got some pretty basic facts wrong along the way), Through A Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen and, oh my gosh, Wideacre by Philippa Gregory, which superceded Judy Blume’s Forever as the sensational reading of the upper fifth. One hears about eighteenth century convent school girls blushingly reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses, well Wideacre was the equivalent for girls who grew up in the eighties.
We all had to write reviews in a special English journal of any book that we had read, and I remember my best friend delivering a gushing and breathless write up of the plot of Wideacre, only to be scolded by our English teacher and informed that no book on earth could have such an involve and shocking plot line.
A visit to Paris with my grandmother in 1989 introduced me not just to a lifelong love for the City of Lights but also the books of Fanny Deschamps. I started with Louison ou l’Heure Exquise, which took me forever to read with my schoolgirl and halting French, but I got there in the end. It is the story of a beautiful and enchanting illegitimate daughter of the Prince de Conti, who ends up having various amorous adventures in pre Revolutionary Paris before marrying a Duc.
There followed the sequel: Louison dans la Douceur Perdue, which was a more exciting read, set during the early years of the Revolution and involving even more romance and drama than its predecessor. My French isn’t the greatest though so it is entirely possible that I missed quite a lot while reading it! For all I know, Louison might not have been a girl at all!
Imagine my joy, therefore when I came across a novel by Fanny Deschamps that had been translated into English! The King’s Garden is an amazing book, with an exquisite and compelling mastery of language and an epic and fascinating scope. It tells the story of the beautiful Jeanne and her rise from humble origins on the estate of a provincial chateau. Jeanne believes herself in love with the noble botanist Dr. Philibert Aubriot and pursues him to Paris, thinking that he must be the man for her, even if to the reader he quite clearly is not. Meanwhile, she has a love/hate relationship with the charming adventurer Vincent de Cotignac, who is her perfect match in every way only she refuses to believe this.
The book sweeps from the French countryside to Paris and Versailles to a wonderful tropical paradise where the tale reaches its breathless finale. I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who loves to read about eighteenth century France. I think I might just have to reread my copy now!