Mistress of the Revolution – Catherine Delors

17 July 2010

Well, after a few  ill advised staying up late reading fests, I have finished Mistress of the Revolution and hastened here to tell you all about it!

Mistress of the Revolution is the complex and enthralling story of Gabrielle, a beautiful young noblewoman from the Auvergne who at a tender age meets and falls in love with the tall, swarthy and straight talking Pierre-André Coffinhal, which is understandable as he is unfeasibly sexy. The young couple plan to elope but these plans are scuppered by her ghastly family (creepy brother and indifferent mother) who lock her in a cellar then marry her off to a vile old goat of an aristocrat, leaving poor Pierre-André miserable and with an apparently implacable loathing of aristos.

It’s a brilliant book – really richly and sensuously written and you really get a real feel for the florid language used by people at the time, where conversation was considered an art form and well educated discourses about literature, philosophy and politics rested alongside the language of flirtation and dalliance.

The book follows Gabrielle’s career from her horrible marriage to her nasty piece of work husband to her impecunious widowhood to her rising fortunes as an aristocrat’s pampered mistress and the lady in waiting to the Comtesse de Provence in the glittering surroundings of the Versailles and Paris of the late 1780s. The world in which she inhabits is brilliantly evoked thanks to a real sense of place, the author’s obvious passion for Paris and lots of fascinating period details. You really feel like you are walking alongside Gabrielle as she gets to know the city and its inhabitants.

When the Revolution begins, the pace of the book quickens and it swiftly becomes a real page turner as Gabrielle becomes perilously embroiled in the massacre at the Champs de Mars, the fall of the Tuileries, the prison massacres of September 1792 and then the rapidly unfolding horrors of the Terror. It is at this point that Pierre-André re-enters her life and the story comes alive thanks to the sparks that fly between them.

The transformation of the dour and rather terrifying Revolutionary Tribunal judge Coffinhal into a romantic hero was really quite superb and reminded me of the similar perplexing blossoming of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which a similarily rather prosaic historical figure was written about so lovingly and with such understanding that he actually became a hero and also, strangely attractive. I’ve lost count now of the people I’ve had the ‘I now fancy Thomas Cromwell – what on earth?!’ conversation with.

The romance between Coffinhal and Gabrielle was genuine and touching and although at times it reminded me of Evariste Gamelin and Elodie Blaise in my beloved Les Dieux ont Soifs by Anatole France (in which the protagonist is a failed artist turned ruthless revolutionary judge while his girlfriend is a bit of a slutty McSlut, who gets off on imagining him sentencing her to death on the guillotine) but it was much more romantic and loving than that and left you with a genuine concern that they should both survive and be together.

I have to admit here that as a redhead, I am naturally biased towards Titian hued heroines so was inclined to like Gabrielle from the outset. I also have a thing for very tall, grumpy men with long dark hair so Coffinhal was just my type, which also helped. I think though that I would have adored them even if this had not been the case.

In summary, this was a fabulous book and one that must surely haunt its readers for a long time after you have finished the final page. Now, go and read it!