I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

I haven’t been very successful recently at finishing the books chosen for me by the Classics Club Spins, so I decided to make an early start on my current Spin book, I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy – and have finished it three weeks before the 22nd August deadline! It helped that it was a relatively short book, as well as a light and entertaining one that I found easy to read.

First published in 1906, this was the first sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel to be published, but if you’re reading the series in chronological order, as I am, it’s the fourth. I have previously read Sir Percy Leads the Band and The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and found them both disappointing in comparison to the original book, but I’m pleased to say that this one was more enjoyable. Not everyone will agree, as we do see very little of the Scarlet Pimpernel and nothing at all of his wife Marguerite, but I thought it was quite an exciting and gripping story in its own right.

The novel opens in 1783 with Paul Déroulède and the young Vicomte de Marny fighting a duel in a Paris tavern. When the Vicomte is accidentally killed, his father, devastated at losing his son and heir, forces his other child, fourteen-year-old Juliette, to swear an oath promising to avenge her brother’s death: “May my brother’s soul remain in torment until the final Judgment Day if I should break my oath, but may it rest in eternal peace the day on which his death is fitly avenged.”

Ten years later, the Revolution is underway and Paris has become a dangerous place for a young noblewoman like Juliette:

And the afternoons were very lively. There was always plenty to see: first and foremost, the long procession of tumbrils, winding its way from the prisons to the Place de la Révolution. The forty-four thousand sections of the Committee of Public Safety sent their quota, each in their turn, to the guillotine. At one time these tumbrils contained royal ladies and gentlemen, ci-devant dukes and princesses, aristocrats from every county in France, but now this stock was becoming exhausted…

Walking through the streets one day, Juliette’s expensive lace-trimmed clothes draw the attention of a mob and she escapes from them by hammering on the door of the nearest house, which happens to be the home of Paul Déroulède. Paul, who has made himself popular with the citizens of Paris despite his own royalist sympathies, protects her from the mob and takes her into his household. As Juliette gets to know her brother’s enemy, she finds herself falling in love – so when a chance comes to send Paul Déroulède to the guillotine, she faces a very difficult decision.

You’re probably wondering where Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, comes into the story; as I’ve said, we don’t see very much of him, but he does have an important role to play towards the end. However, the absence of Sir Percy for most of the novel probably explains why this book was not more popular on its publication as people who were expecting a Scarlet Pimpernel book would have been disappointed. Personally, this didn’t really bother me as I was so caught up in the story of Juliette and Déroulède, and all the detail of this period of the French Revolution. The novel is set shortly after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, during the ‘Reign of Terror’, and Orczy does a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere on the streets of Paris where anyone with a drop of noble blood risks being denounced and sent to their death. Orczy makes no secret of the fact that she is clearly on the side of the aristocrats, while the ordinary citizens of Paris are portrayed as brutal and bloodthirsty, but I suppose you would expect bias from someone who was a baroness!

Having enjoyed this one, I’m planning to continue with the next book in the series, The Elusive Pimpernel, which I’ve been told is one of the best.

This is book 21/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Book 33/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Bastille Spy by CS Quinn

Set during the French Revolution and featuring an almost super-human female spy and a handsome, charismatic pirate, this book feels like a cross between The Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean. As the first in a new series – Revolutionary Spy – I’m not sure whether I really liked it enough to want to continue with the next one, but it was certainly entertaining.

Our heroine Attica Morgan is the illegitimate daughter of a British nobleman and an African slave. Raised and educated in England, Attica wants to make the most of the opportunities she has been given and do everything she can to help relieve the suffering of others, whether they are those who are born or sold into slavery, or those who have become political prisoners. With her impressive range of skills and abilities, as well as her intelligence and fearlessness, Attica has been admitted to the secret society known as the Sealed Knot and as the novel opens in 1789, she is preparing to head to France on a new mission.

Armed with her deadly Mangbetu knife and her quick wits, Attica arrives in a Paris where revolution is brewing. A diamond necklace intended for Marie Antoinette has gone missing, something which could have serious repercussions for the monarchy if the jewels are not found. Attica’s task is to locate the necklace, but more important to her is the safety of her cousin Grace, who was sent to Paris on a mission of her own and has disappeared as thoroughly as the diamonds. Meanwhile, a prisoner has been murdered inside the notorious Bastille, but who was he and who was responsible for his death?

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Attica crosses paths with some of the leading figures of the Revolution, including Maximilien Robespierre who is on the trail of an elusive British spy known only by the codename ‘Mouron’, or ‘Pimpernel’. If she is to evade Robespierre’s clutches and survive long enough to complete her mission, Attica needs someone she can trust, but there’s only the pirate Captain Jemmy Avery – and it’s impossible to tell which side he is on and for whom he is really working.

The story moves along at a whirlwind pace, never slowing down for a second as Attica and her friends rush from one adventure to another, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies. There’s plenty of historical detail in between, but something about the writing style, the language and the characters made the book feel more ‘modern’ than I would have preferred. Attica herself isn’t very believable as an 18th century woman – but then, she wouldn’t be very believable in any other time period anyway! It seems there is nothing she can’t do, from picking locks and wielding weapons to speaking a multitude of foreign languages and decoding secret messages. This makes her fun to spend time with, but I would have liked to have seen a few more flaws and vulnerabilities to round out her character.

Only part of the story is told from Attica’s point of view. There are also some chapters which focus on Robespierre, as well as some in which we follow the adventures of Attica’s cousin Grace. Next to the larger-than-life Attica, Grace is a quieter, less memorable character, but I enjoyed the occasional change of perspective.

I might be tempted to read the next book in this series, but at the moment I don’t think so. However, I’m determined that 2020 will be the year I read Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, which I’ve only been putting off reading because of the length.

Thanks to Corvus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop

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.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.

I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.

But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?

Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.

The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.

As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.

I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

A glass blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.

The Glass-Blowers The Glass-Blowers was the book selected for me in the last Classics Spin at the end of August. The deadline for reading our Spin book is this Friday, so I’ve finished just in time! Although it has taken me a while to actually pick this novel up and read it, that’s not because I wasn’t looking forward to it. Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I fully expected to love this book as I’ve loved most of her others. That didn’t really happen, unfortunately, but I did still find things to enjoy.

Published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is historical fiction based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution. The story is narrated by Sophie Duval, an elderly woman writing her family history in the form of a letter to send to her nephew. Sophie begins by looking back on her childhood growing up in the Loir-et-Cher region of France as the daughter of master glass-blower Mathurin Busson. Most of her early memories revolve around her eldest brother, Robert, who is constantly getting into debt and finding himself in trouble. It is Robert who will eventually move to England and provide the link to Daphne du Maurier herself.

In France, meanwhile, Sophie and her other siblings – Pierre, Michel and Edmé – become swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. So much of what I’ve read about the Revolution is focused on Paris, so it was fascinating to read about the ways in which it affected the lives of those living in the countryside and in other cities such as Le Mans. The section set during the War in the Vendée is particularly gripping and vivid – probably because Sophie herself is caught up in the uprising and experiences it directly. Other major events happen in the background and Sophie only hears thirdhand accounts, which takes away some of the emotional impact of the story (I kept thinking of The Brethren by Robert Merle, another novel set in France which is written in a similarly passive style).

The distance between narrator and reader meant that I never became fully engaged in the lives of the Bussons and never felt that I had really got to know Sophie. Her brother and sisters were stronger characters, particularly Michel, who becomes a political activist and joins the National Guard, and Robert, who repeatedly reinvents himself as one business venture after another ends in failure. Robert infuriated me at first but he eventually became my favourite character and I found myself looking forward to his scenes as they added a spark of life to what I was beginning to find quite a tedious story.

One of the things I usually love about du Maurier is her descriptive writing and the way she creates a strong sense of time and place – and this is something that I thought was missing from The Glass-Blowers (apart from in the Vendée scenes, as I mentioned above). This hasn’t become a favourite du Maurier book, then, but in my opinion even her weaker novels are still worth reading. Now that I’ve read this one I’m planning to read Mary Anne, another fictional account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors, this time on the English side of the family. After that I’ll only have Frenchman’s Creek and Castle Dor left to read.

The League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel After reading The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago I was pleased to find that Baroness Orczy had written a whole series of Pimpernel books. I slowly (very slowly – this is only the third one I’ve read in three years) began to work my way through them in chronological order, but as I haven’t been particularly impressed by either this one or Sir Percy Leads the Band, I’m now wondering if I really want to read all of the others.

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1919 and is a collection of short stories, unlike the first two books I read which were both full-length novels. I don’t often choose to read short stories but as I’m also in the middle of some longer, heavier books at the moment, I thought this collection would be ideal for dipping into when I needed something lighter.

There are eleven stories in this book – all set during the French Revolution – and each one involves a family or group of aristocrats whose lives are in danger. It falls to Sir Percy Blakeney and his friends (known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to rescue them from the guillotine, often with the help of some clever disguises, cunning deceptions and daring rescue plans. Although all eleven stories are entertaining, they do become very repetitive, and once you’re familiar with the way Sir Percy works they are also very predictable.

Most of the stories are too short to have much of a plot and their main purpose just seems to be to highlight Sir Percy’s various masquerades and tricks, but there are a few stories that are longer and more complex. My favourite was probably the first one, Sir Percy Explains, in which our hero agrees to help rescue a little boy who has been captured by the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat. Almost all of the stories are written in the third person, but there are one or two with a first person narrator, which I liked because it added some variety to the book. How Jean Pierre met the Scarlet Pimpernel, narrated by the loyal servant of an impoverished noblewoman, was one of these and another of my favourites from this collection.

I was a bit disappointed that, given the title of this book, none of the other League members apart from Percy have a big part to play in any of the adventures. Tony and Ffoulkes make a few brief appearances, and one story deals with the subject of a traitor in the League, but that’s all. There’s no Marguerite either – Percy’s wife only has a one-sentence mention in one of the stories – but we do see a lot of the Pimpernel’s enemy, Citizen Chauvelin.

From what I’ve heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel series, the quality varies quite a lot from book to book. This one is worth reading, especially if you like short story collections, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the original novel. If I do continue to read the series, the next book I come to chronologically will be I Will Repay, which I’m hoping I’ll enjoy more than this one.