Angélique: Book I: Sergeanne Golon

★★½

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!

Buy the book

19 thoughts on “Angélique: Book I: Sergeanne Golon

  1. Isi says:

    hehehehe
    You know I'm a fan of romance, but I think this particular one is not for me.
    I didn't know the series, but well, I think that your review contains enough information to give an idea of what you can find in the story (mainly men and Angelique's bosom 😉 ).

  2. Heloise says:

    Congratulations on actually making it through the novel, and special congratulations for having the courage to carry a book with that cover around in public. 😛

    Being a reader of Romance fiction myself (mostly contemporary, but the occasional historical, too), I have to say that a lot has happened in the genre. From your description, Angelique does not even seem all that bad (depictions of rape in particular can get very unsavoury), but still bad enough, Not that it seems very likely, but if you ever feel an urge to give Historical Romance a try, I'd strongle recommend Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm, my personal favourite in the genre – it's still not Dorothy Dunnett, but it's well-written, the characters behave appropriate to their period and it's a wonderful, heartwarming story that doesn't just follow Romance clichés.

  3. Jean G says:

    LOL, Leander! Doesn't sound like she would fit into GRRM's Dangerous Women anthology, just published! Agree, that cover would make me pass it by! If she's such a success in France, perhaps she gets a bit better in Volume 2

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Why thank you – I am very proud of myself. As you know, I've just got home for Christmas and have taken special pleasure in reading some of the more eyebrow-raising sections aloud to my parents in a melodramatic voice. It's been fun. And no, I'm sure that really this book isn't so bad: it's probably slightly endearing in its efforts to be risque. Thank you for the Kinsale recommendation. I probably won't be heading back towards historical romance any time soon, but who knows what might happen?! Always very good to have a recommendation or two under one's belt. 🙂

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Absolutely not, Jean! Ah, I'm looking forward to that anthology. It sounds really good and the spread of authors involved is very exciting. Yes, it may well be that the books get better as time goes on, but I have no doubt that bodices continue to be ripped with abandon. I wouldn't mind if only she had a bit more personality and panache!

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I think it's something that our generation has (mercifully) managed to pass by. But we shouldn't be too critical. Maybe some people would find 'men and Angelique's bosom' an incentive to pick up the book. *grins* And it's really not THAT bad but once in a while I always enjoy being able to get my teeth into a book – either positively or negatively. 😉

  7. s1203 says:

    Well, when you have 15 in 1980. than Anquelik was and still is (ah, nostalgy) great read and I must confess that I was learning much more (madam Golon and husband are allways been researchfull l!!) about Luis XIV the king of sun and also this turbulent early period in America… very good history descriptios and all through eyes and loveof an extraordinary for that period woman… so this is not read for younger people now… they are in love (and so do I) with an Christian or an Gideon… or an Laird :))) or an Laura Kinsale also… my last comment: do not judge book based on picture on cover – most modern novels also have cover “to gag” but inside are sometimes real tresure 🙂

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hello, I first read the Angelique novels as a teenager and am now 53 years old. Despite the bodice ripper covers, they were extremely well written historical fiction. Many of Angelique's fans are ignorant of the fact that Angelique is based on a real life mistress of the Louis XIV. My favorite novels are 19th century literature, especially the romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, etc. However, I have gone back year after year to the Angelique series because she is such a spunky heroine and her adventures still entertain me after reading them so many times. You mention that Angelique has a cult following here and to some degree there is truth in that. The primary reason is her books are out of print in English. Used copies can fetch big money even in poor condition due to Anne Golon's popularity. I truly believe that if these novels were to be put back into print and marketed correctly, Anne would be recognized as the great talent that she is.

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh dear Frances, you must forgive me for not having replied to your comment before now. I'm afraid the Christmas holidays seem to have distracted me from properly answering everyone! No I haven't read that, but I shall see if I can find out a little more about it. Thank you for the recommendation!

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    You're absolutely right that covers are often not an accurate reflection of what's inside! Thanks for sharing your memories of Angelique – you may have a point that Angelique was quite forward-thinking for the period when she was first published, but that nowadays we have a broader range of heroines and so perhaps we're looking for something slightly different…

  11. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and I'm very happy to have a defence of Angelique here, because I'm sure there are a lot of people who share your affection for the series. When I don't gel with a book, I always like it when people take time to put forward the other side of the story, and you have been very gracious considering the fact that I was rather… unforgiving about it. Moreover, you have a very good point: I'm astonished that some clever English publisher hasn't reissued the series. It's the kind of thing I can imagine Arrow doing: after all, they've republished Georgette Heyer's Regency novels (which I adore, by the way), and surely the Angelique series would do very well for them?

    I think that if I'd come to the novels as a teenager then I would have enjoyed them thoroughly as well – for the feisty heroine, the romantic hero and of course the slightly risque element. However my tastes have changed slightly over time, and I have to reiterate that in this particular instance I came to the series because they'd been recommended for fans of Dorothy Dunnett. Those expectations were responsible for my feeling so frustrated by the book; as well as my own personal feelings about Angelique herself. But not everyone enjoys the same kind of historical fiction, and it'd be terribly dull if we did! And I'm glad I gave it a go, because even though it's not for me I think it's great to have dipped my toe into a series that really is one of the historical-fiction phenomena of the 20th century.

    (Incidentally, it's very true that second-hand English copies are expensive: I think I had to pay around £20 for my copy, so I was doubly sad that I hadn't enjoyed it as much as I'd hoped.)

  12. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Teri and thanks so much for stopping by! Do you mean that you've only just found out about other books in the series, continuing the story, which you didn't know about before? What a wonderful feeling that must be, to suddenly find out that a beloved series has more books than you expected. I'm sure we all dream of wandering into a bookshop somewhere and discovering 'new' books by a favourite author but it so rarely happens. I think you should definitely seek them out: if nothing else, it's the perfect excuse for a reread. 🙂

    It's lovely to hear about the experiences of people who grew up with these books and enjoyed them so much. I'm fully aware that I came to them too late, by which point I'd become a horrifically demanding reader. 😉 You are right to note that books we read at around the age of 12 or 13 often have a much greater impact on us than books we read later in life: there's a real sense of opening and discovery at around that age. I still have a very special place in my heart for series and characters whom I first came across at that age – Robin Hobb's Farseer books being the most obvious example.

  13. Teri Coulson says:

    I am 55 years old. My husband and I are on a long road trip as I write this. We had a conversation where he asked me what my favorite books are. They were too many to number but I told him I had a sentimental favorite and that would be The Angelique series. I explained that It was a series of historic romances that were passed down to me by my older sister when I was 12 years old and were responsible for developing my love for reading. I recall being swept up in the historical upheaval of the period, the adventures of Angelique as she was swept along from continent to continent, historic event to historic event, through love and loss and to renewed love and contentment. I had to be one of her biggest fans. I remember the melancholy that gripped me after I had read the last book rooted in a fear and disappointment that my life would lack the vibrant color of this extraordinary heroine (foolish insecurities of a 12 year old adolescent). For me, they are my sentimental favorite. To enjoy them, particularly as a mature adult, you must let go of your own world experience just long enough to grow WITH the immature Angelique as each experience she encounters adds to her world experience and matures her, slowly, just as we mature. I found this site today, as well as others, and have learned that there were other books that I had not read. What fun it would be to find those books and once again, suspend my expectations and just let my heroine return to me one last time.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I'm another one that lost track of this series and didn't know that more books had been published, or that the author had copyright control issues with her publisher. So sorry that this series continues to be out of print in English … going to have to brush up on my French or German to continue on the Kindle.

    Alas, the original books' cover art was awful, and yes, Angelique is a bit blown about by men and happenstance. However, it was a wonderfully written series of stories that I happily would re-read later on. I've been getting some of the later books as paperbacks, just to have them.

    I thought these books were well written at the time, and still think so now; so guess that tells you that I'm not that into great literature since my standards are low(er). I loved the period history details, which I thought was detailed enough to give me a feel for the place and time, and I think that was a big part of the attraction of the series. I didn't mind that Angelique was molded and buffeted by her experiences, as I think that was a more realistic portrait of how a lot of women have passed through life, although there are very noble heroines in the books, those don't often mirror reality.

    Other odd books that went out of print and have come back recently that I loved as well: the Harold Lamb stories of Khlit and Kirdy and their adventures in central Asia. I always had a great respect for the importance of that period of time and location for its impact on our world history and what might not have been if the Silk Road hadn't tempted the West.

  15. J Anna Ludlow says:

    Hello Leander
    I hope this won’t turn into a treatise, my ramblings usually do, but first of all I do have to congratulate you for slipping through my dragnet these many years – were it not for a new member of a Facebook page that I co-run, this commentary might never have been written! But as you’ve been ‘outed’ so to speak here’s my take on what you have to say on the first half of ‘Angélique’ .
    ‘Tis a shame you were only able to get hold of two books with ‘film tie-in’ covers featuring Michèle Mercier as the eponymous heroine. Granted, not all the book covers are ‘wholly appropriate’ but the first hardbacks at least created a canvas conveying the period of time and perhaps a window in the storyline stretcheing across the front, spine and back of the dustjacket creating a mini landscape for the reader to enjoy before opening the covers. Michèle Mercier herself wrote her autobiography calling it ‘Je ne suis pas Angélique’ – which is still available and speaks volumes!

    I don’t think reading half a book is sufficient to trash a whole series beloved by many readers. I had exactly the same feelings when the Harry Potter franchise took hold and both my elder sister and husband were entranced. I waited until all 7 books had been published and then read the whole lot through in one go. You may see from this, that I should have preferred you to stay with the series and then have written your review. It may be that you would have found the whole series vacuous but I’d lay money that you wouldn’t have! LOL

    The Angélique films are also a little divisive when it comes to the literary fans. Most readers hate them, those that have seen the films often refuse to read the books because they say they would not stand up to the films. The books, however, are historical treasures – in the course of reading them and eventually producing my website, I have delved into so many different arenas I’d never have thought of pursuing – the Jesuits, the Wolverine, Marguerite Bourjeoys – Canada’s first woman saint, the Five Nations, Wampum, Mélusine, the origins of chocolate as a drink, etc. etc. my website is becoming a monster, but it is interesting. So many people contact me to ask if they can use my material – of course they can – it’s my hobby, so long as they credit me.

    I won’t go into detail about my personal relationship with the author and one of her daughters, but suffice it to say that thanks to a dogged Marine who knew how to use the internet in the early 1990s many of us are a lot richer for having discovered and got to know Madame Anne Golon; now well into her nineties who is still righting the wrongs done to her over the years and re-writing her novels to correct the unwarranted changes made by her publishers.

    It was hoped the new film released in 2013 might generate some interest in the English speaking world, but it has not – this film which had input from the author and was co-written by her daughter is an interesting take on the first half of the book with some little twists that may or may not have been intended by the author in her original books, but which are thought provoking. Happily, Anne Golon approved heartily of this version and was treated with respect by all concerned.

    I would like to think that when people find your page and perhaps read this – they may have second thoughts about dismissing the books outright and at least give them a go as far as ‘Angélique in Love’ which is a sort of natural conclusion to one set of events before deciding whether they should go forward with ‘Countess through to the final misnamed ‘Angélique and the Ghosts’ and find themselves like many others wondering what would happen in ‘Angélique à Québec’, ‘Angélique, La Route de l’Espoir’, ‘La Victoire d’ Angélique’ and ‘Angélique et le Rouyame de France.’

  16. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks very much for taking the time to write a comment. I always welcome courteous disagreement. When I wrote the post, I knew that the series was much loved and I expected to get flak for not liking it. Please allow me to answer a couple of your comments though. First: you say, ‘I don’t think reading half a book is sufficient to trash a whole series’. As far as I'm concerned I didn't read half a book. I read a complete volume which was published as a whole book. If the publisher has cut the first book in half and published the first section as a standalone novel without that being appropriate for the story, then they (not the hapless reader) are at fault for doing a great disservice to the author. You imply that’s only one of many disservices they did her, and I'm sorry to hear that she has been treated so poorly by them. But how is the reader who’s never heard of the series before supposed to know that?

    Secondly, I didn't trash the whole series. I speak only of this novel, specifically acknowledging in my final paragraph that Angélique may change later in the series, but explaining that I didn't feel engaged enough to read on and find out. (Yes, that may well mean I’m missing out on a literary gem. But so be it. Sometimes we don’t go down paths that would have led to wonderful things. We can only hope that in choosing to avoid them we end up on equally rewarding and exciting other paths.) And I didn't even trash this book. The only negative things I say are that the cover was a bit of an eye-opener (and I think we both agree they could have chosen a more appropriate image), and that I felt Angélique came across as rather naïve, superficial, and objectified by men in a dated way (with which you evidently disagree, but that is my opinion). I do sometimes trash things on this blog, but very rarely, and when I do I am considerably harsher than I am here.

    It is always a difficult decision, whether to review something that has an active, passionate fan base. There are books I've read and disliked heartily which I haven’t posted on because I knew that the fans would be unable to bear any criticism and that I’d just be opening myself up to angry comments. At the same time, this blog is (among other things) an informal reading journal and I would be untrue to its spirit if I only ever posted on things which I thought were brilliant. The very fact that the Angélique series has an active, passionate fan base counts in its favour, of course, because it means that the later books must be more complex and engaging than I found this opening volume to be. When readers have a direct connection with the author, that naturally also changes the way that they experience a book. The fact remains, however, that this just didn't do it for me.

    My hope is that if people find their appetite whetted by a book I write about, they’ll go to explore it for themselves. I'm not a professional book reviewer and I certainly don’t claim that my point of view is the only right one to have. Books are subjective things. If I'm making people aware of a book they haven’t heard of before, that might be interesting to them, then I hope they’d have the motivation to seek it out – and then come back and either argue or agree with me.

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