France on Friday
Book: The Mistaken Wife (New September, 2010) by Rose Melikan
We’re deep in a nasty political season here in the United States. But it does not hold a candle to the French Revolution.
I was surprised to see how the French Revolution’s effects still affects France, and also very glad that I took a gander at a DVD of The French Revolution (History Channel) before I went, so I could sort out the Jacobins, the Girondists, the Reign of Terror, and finally the guillotine indiscriminately feasting on anyone as the Revolution ate its own.
Today’s book added to my knowledge of the revolution, too. The Mistaken Wife: A Novel portrays that nebulous moment after royalty was banished and before Napoleon took power. We see the effects of the uprising on northern France and Paris through the eyes of a British woman who works for the British secret service, an occupation that would shock her upper class friends if they knew what she was up to.
Her job here is to persuade the Americans to end their alliance with France, so that the British can more easily defeat France in their on-going war. To accomplish that, she goes to Paris using the cover of a new wife of an American painter. She is appalled by the devastation that she sees in the countryside and in Paris, as I was surprised at hearing the history of a couple of chateaus where we stayed.
For instance, at Manoir de St. Meleuc, in northern Brittany, a rural chateau built in the 14th century for the mistress of a nobleman in service to the king, the revolutionaries tore down the tower because they thought it was a symbol of royalty. That tower provided the entrance to the manor’s great room, which was the bedroom that we occupied for one night.
However, the owner explained to us, the revolutionaries picked the wrong target. ANYBODY could build a tower. But only the very wealthy landowners could have a dovecote. And out our window, we could look across the moat to the 14th century dovecote, still in tact.
At Chateau de Locguénolé, also in Brittany, the earlier family chateau was completely destroyed, and an ancestor of the present owner built the early 18th century beauty in which we stayed.
The Bastille is gone–dismantled stone by stone by the angry mobs in Paris. Today you can trace its outline in the pavement of a very busy plaza, and attend the opera in a beautiful, modern building on the Place Bastille. But a more chilling reminder of the Revolution stands on the Ile de Cité in the middle of the Seine. There you can visit the Conciergerie, the medieval former palace used as a Revolution prison to hold first members of the royalty and early revolutionaries who were judged too lax by later elements of the madness that seized the country.
Inside the cold gray stone walls, you will see reproductions of life in the cells. If prisoners paid a fee, they could bring in their own furnishings, and some relieved the horror with a comfortable cot and a writing desk. Letters written by people like Danton have survived and many are displayed in glass cases.
Of course the most famous victim (or perhaps cause) of the Revolution, was Marie Antoinette, the beautiful Austrian princess who arrived in Versailles when she was only 14 to wed the French King. A chapel built after her death on the site of her cell, displays portraits of the Queen. Beside the chapel, a cell has been recreated with mannequins representing the ill-fated Queen and one of her guards, who hovered behind a partial partition, giving her very little privacy. Quite a contrast between life at Versailles, and her last days in the forbidding Conciergerie.
The book The Mistaken Wife, in which author Rose Melikan recreates the late 18th century with a novel that could be espionage written by Jane Austin, does not move rapidly like a modern spy thriller. But it is faithful to a very frightening time in French history. Many interesting characters keep the book interesting, including one who was experimenting with submarines in the little Normandy port of Honfleur, and a dastardly intelligence master masquerading as the policeman in charge of the Conciergerie.
Although The Mistaken Wife moves slowly, I was fascinated by the diverse, well-drawn characters. Just as with the Revolution, you could never be sure whom you could trust. Melikan introduced me to a place and a time that I knew little about, so I believe this is a good addition to a Traveler’s Library.
Relais and Chateaux hotel Chateau de Locguènolé hosted our one-night stay, and France Made Easy provided a complimentary stay at the Manoir de Saint Meleuc. The book was provided by the publisher for review. All photos on this page are the property of Vera Marie Badertscher, with the exception of the interior of Saint Meleuc, which is borrowed from their web site. Do not reuse without permission.