It’s 1793 and Philippe Roberts is in one of the most notorious prisons in Paris awaiting the decision that could send him to the guillotine. The only reason it hasn’t happened already is that nobody seems able to establish his identity. According to the Committee of General Security, he is Philippe-Jean-Baptiste-Raoul, Vicomte de Lambrière, a French aristocrat and therefore a counter-revolutionary. The Committee of Public Safety, however, insist that he is an English gentleman, Anthony Buckland of Sandgate, and that he has been spying on behalf of the British government. Nobody will believe him when he tries to explain that his name is actually Roberts and both de Lambrière and Buckland are fake identities that he has used at various times for reasons entirely unconnected with the French Revolution.
How has Roberts ended up in this ridiculous situation? In his own words:
Some of my more disagreeable friends suggest that in my case there’s no need to look any further for the cause of my present predicament than my own character. I’m inclined to think that’s unjust. After all, there have been thieves, liars, and murderers who have ended up on thrones before now. The fact that I have been all three with less success needn’t necessarily account for my situation.
As Roberts sits in his dungeon and waits, he remembers the events that have led him to this point and shares his memories with the reader. His story begins in England where, as an aspiring young actor, he is taken under the wing of the man he calls Manager Smith (or ‘M.S.’), from whom he learns ‘scraps of history, Latin, astrology, fencing, how to be a gentleman, mathematics, doctoring, geography – everything, in fact, from tips on farming to how to beat the law’. M.S. believes Roberts is destined for a great career on the stage and invests a huge amount of time and effort in his training, but success is slow to come and most of their ‘acting’ is limited to picking pockets and finding creative ways to escape from inns without paying.
Eventually, though, the two acquire their own small theatre, the Little Apollo. Their luck seems about to change – especially when the wealthy and eccentric Lizzie Weldon approaches Roberts after one of his performances and offers to pay him to carry out a simple task. It sounds like an easy way to make money, but Roberts soon regrets saying yes. His involvement with Lizzie and her ludicrous schemes gets him into so much trouble that he and M.S. are forced to flee the country, arriving in France at the worst possible time…the beginning of the Revolution.
The Way to the Lantern was published in 1961 and is the first book I’ve read by Audrey Erskine Lindop. Why it has been allowed to go out of print and fade into obscurity is a mystery to me. I thought it was a wonderful book and I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end! I can’t really say that I loved our narrator – after all, as he admits himself, he is a thief, a liar and a murderer, and his attitude towards women leaves a lot to be desired too – but I did love the way he tells his story, in the style of the picaresque novels of the 18th century, never losing his sense of humour no matter how bad things get. And they do get very bad! It seems that everything that can go wrong does go wrong for Roberts and he spends the entire novel stumbling from one disastrous situation straight into another. Sometimes he only has himself to blame, but often he is simply the victim of bad luck or bad timing.
Roberts’ relationship with M.S. was one of my favourite aspects of the book. From the beginning, M.S. fills the role not just of manager, but of mentor, friend and father figure and this never really changes, even as Roberts grows into a man and their disagreements and differences of opinion become more profound. One way in which they differ is in their political views – M.S. is a royalist while Roberts, whose mother was a French laundress, takes the side of the working classes (the sans-culottes) and the revolutionaries – and another is over Roberts’ romance with the beautiful Marie-Clarice, a woman he meets shortly after they arrive in Paris.
M.S. sees Marie-Clarice as a distraction which could ruin Roberts’ acting career, as well as a danger as Marie-Clarice is a countess (actually a ci-devant, or former, countess, since the nobility have had their titles removed during the Revolution). Roberts knows that she could be denounced at any moment and that he could also fall under suspicion because of his association with her, but he is sure that her true sympathies are with the revolutionaries and so he refuses to abandon her to her fate. At first I was inclined to agree with M.S. about Marie-Clarice, but I warmed to her later in the book; it would have been difficult not to, I think. The real star of the novel for me, though, was Suzon Dupont – or as Roberts nicknames her, the Puce (the flea). We first meet the Puce as a dirty, impoverished urchin of thirteen who proves to be a better pickpocket than Roberts himself, but over the course of the novel we see her blossom into a pretty and intelligent young woman with a fierce loyalty towards M.S. and Roberts.
Loyalty is something to be valued during the Revolution, at a time when there are spies around every corner and you can never be sure who may be about to denounce you as a supporter of the ancien régime. Although all of the major events are covered in the novel, such as the storming of the Bastille, the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI, the focus of the story is on the lives of the ordinary people and I was given a real sense of what it was like to live in Paris during that period. The balance between the historical detail and Roberts’ fictional adventures is perfect; it’s the sort of book where you learn a lot as you go along, while being entertained by a great story at the same time.
I’m sorry for the length of this post, but I did really enjoy The Way to the Lantern and found that I had a lot to say about it! It’s disappointing that none of Audrey Erskine Lindop’s books are in print, but I will definitely try to read some of her others – although they do all sound very different from this one.