The Marquise of the Angels
I know. I know. This needs some explanation. Angélique was recommended automatically, either by Goodreads or Amazon, with a considerably more innocuous cover. I’d never heard of the series but reviews were glowing, promising wonderful characters and breathless adventure; and one reviewer even suggested that readers looking for something similar should try the Lymond Chronicles. Naturally such a comparison caught my attention and, despite slight misgivings, I went ahead and ordered it.
To cut a very long story short, the second volume in the series arrived instead of the first (and trust me, that cover is much worse than this) but by that point I’d committed myself, so I got hold of the first book just so I could say that I’d given it a go. Of course the cover has given my friends great amusement; and Heloise was kind enough, between fits of laughter, to send me a link to a trailer for the 1964 film directed by Bernard Borderie. This was illuminating. However I told myself not to worry too much: without the wooden acting, the soft focus and the bouffant hair, the book might be more palatable.
Before proceeding further, I have to make some disclaimers. I know now that this series has a cult status in France and I can see from various reviews (and comments below) that there are many people across the world who are passionately attached to it and its heroine, and who are distressed by those who fail to perceive its magic. I’m also now fully aware that it should be read from a historical romance perspective: not a field of which I have much experience. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth putting up a post (partly because I’m sure several of you will laugh to think of me reading this). I believe an ‘outsider’s’ opinion on this book might be valuable and, as ever, I’ve judged it again the same standard as I do all other novels I read. My main aim, I suppose, is to warn others who might do as I did ad come to the book assuming that it’s similar to Dorothy Dunnett. (It isn’t.)
First published in 1957, by the husband-and-wife team of Serge and Anne Golon, The Marquise of the Angels is the opening instalment in a series that currently boasts thirteen novels in French, ten of which have been translated into English. This first volume introduces us to our heroine, the tomboyish Angélique, middle daughter of an impoverished Poitevin nobleman. Roaming the woods and fields around her father’s castle at Monteloup, Angélique has a wild and untamed spirit and, even at the age of eleven or twelve, is so beautiful as to have won devoted followers in the miller’s son Valentine and the peasant Nicolas. As she grows even older her innocence and naivety are blended with a beauty of such richness and sensuality that men find her irresistible. Her father dreams of a great marriage for her and, with the help of his business partner Molines, Angélique is betrothed to the Comte de Peyrac, a wealthy nobleman from Toulouse whom she has never even seen.
And, when she does see him on the occasion of her wedding, she is horrified: Joffrey de Peyrac is dark and saturnine, brutally scarred and left with a disfiguring limp as the result of a childhood accident. Convinced that she can never come to love him, Angélique waits with dread for her wedding night – but it turns out that her new husband has more to him than meets the eye. He is content to wait until she has learned to love him, and so there begins a glittering whirl of parties, balls and banquets, through which Angélique comes to learn her husband’s qualities: his charm, his seductiveness, his great intelligence and his status as the most celebrated nobleman in the city. But a dark shadow lies over her growing happiness: for Joffrey de Peyrac is also a scientist and chemist, experimenting with new ways of extracting gold from France’s exhausted mines. And in these days of religious tension, scientific advancement can all too easily be misconstrued as witchcraft, and personal grudges cloaked in denunciations…
In many ways this is a good old-fashioned romance and I can’t criticise it too much as I’ve read and enjoyed things like Forever Amber. Joffrey de Peyrac is an undeniably attractive hero: rather different from the norm and a formidable example of a Renaissance man. I can imagine that I would have been entirely bowled over by him if I’d read this as a teenager. And the early parts of the book weren’t badly written at all, promising to develop a rich and multilayered context for the story, factoring in the struggles between Catholics and Huguenots, and the plight of the overtaxed country nobles. Where I stopped enjoying it was roughly at the point where Angélique got married.
From the beginning I hadn’t really warmed to her as a character, but from this point my inner feminist rebelled. Although the authors wanted me to believe that Angélique was sharp and intelligent – throwing in conversations about business and chemistry to prove that she has a good mind – I saw no proof of this in the rest of her characterisation. For an allegedly intelligent, feisty and independent woman she’s very naive (as a teenager, she has a habit of wandering off into barns with peasant boys, and then being shocked at what they try to do). She has no agency of her own: she’s instructed by men, moulded by men, carried off by men, ravished by men, helped by men and rescued by men, but I never once had the feeling that this supposedly spirited woman was going to make an effort to take control of her destiny. I also grew impatient with the number of times she was either partly or wholly ravished (so many bodices were ripped that her seamstress’s bill must have been enormous), and the incredibly passive role she took in it all. As I said to Heloise, when is this woman going to show some gumption and start carrying a stiletto tucked into her bodice?! The attitude to women really did feel quite dated. In fact it actually made me a little angry that, even when being raped, Angélique finds herself so overcome by the power of a man’s arms that she secretly can’t help enjoying herself a little.
It’s a shame that I never felt able to engage or sympathise with Angélique, because as I’ve said the book isn’t badly written, despite a few eyebrow-raising moments. The main problem is that it’s just not my kind of book. (I was tempted to include some of the more florid and highly-coloured sections, but I fear that might give you the wrong idea.) For me, the best kind of historical fiction is that which immerses you in the period and, although there were efforts to show historical context in this novel, much of the history was obscured by Angélique’s heaving bosom. Now, it may well be that in later volumes she becomes more independent and proactive in her own story, but at the moment I don’t feel gripped enough to read on, even with my tongue in my cheek, despite the fact that I already own the second volume. And I am not greatly encouraged by the tone of future cover designs, such as that for Angélique in Barbary, which doesn’t exactly imply that intelligence and independence are her chief qualities.
But, if you are more of a historical romance reader than me, and if you rather like the idea of a story about a tempestuous, voluptuous blonde blazing a trail through the court of Louis XIV, by all means give this a go!