Monday, June 29, 2020

Summer of France: Heroes and Tragedy

Here’s a thing that happens to me when I read historical fiction. If the characters are well-written, I get invested, maybe even develop feelings. Because really, in general, character is my jam when it comes to fiction. So I’ll be reading along, forgetting that maybe the book is set during a tumultuous or even tragic time, and hoping for a good outcome for all involved. And when bad things start to happen to the characters, I’m always shocked and somewhat disappointed, even though—Hello! It’s the French Revolution, and I should have seen it coming.

I won’t be spoiling things too much, I think, if I tell you that some of the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety don’t make it out alive. Maybe you are more astute and guessed this already. But I was taken by surprise at times, and was disappointed to say goodbye to several of the characters, whether it was because the pages ran out or because they couldn’t outrun a noose or guillotine. I’ll never tell. You’ll have to read this sprawling but controlled epic of a novel that speeds along like a train, car after car; even if you don’t see clearly into each one, it’s a mesmerizing effect and you can’t look away. Mantel’s writing is witty, crackling, and always smart, and what she’s accomplished here with such a wide range of characters and complicated subject is awe-inspiring. I gave a flavor of the prose and an overview last week: Summer of France: Reading Update 1.

If you recall from my first post, this historical fiction novel highlights three main characters: Maximilien Robispierre, George-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. For me, another character was also a standout: Lucile Desmoulins. Clever and brave, she determined to marry Camille Desmoulins as a girl and was a unique player among the groups of revolutionaries. The story of their courtship and partnership was intriguing, and after I finished the novel, I looked them up in the real world. Google, that is.

Camille was originally an admirer of Lucile’s mother. Mantel represents their relationship as fairly long and chaste, until a fateful kiss witnessed by Lucile and her sister. Ten years Camille’s junior, Lucile falls in love with him during his many visits with her mother. Later, when he proposes to Lucile (Mantel’s book suggests in retaliation for her mother’s refusal), Lucile would like to accept but her father won’t allow it because he thinks Camille’s profession in journalism is an unreliable one. Eventually, he relents, and the couple marries in 1790. Robespierre was one of the witnesses. Their only child, Horace Camille, is born in 1792.

After Horace is orphaned (I won’t spoil how!), he is raised by Lucile’s mother and sister. Later, he was pensioned by the French government and migrated to Haiti to set up a coffee trading business. He and his wife Zoe Villefranche had four children: Adolphe, who died young, Marie-Therese-Camille, Lucile, and Horace-Camille. The elder Horace died from fever, aged 33 years old, on June 29, 1825; some sources list his date of death as the same day his son, Horace-Camille, was born. Which would be quite a coincidence and another particular tragedy. June 29th! Also my first-born son's birthday, but that's beside the point.

The painting of the original family was done in 1792 by Jacques-Louis David. Next post: the Paris poems.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka