Given historical fiction's recent explosion in popularity, it's hard to keep up with all the new titles publishers turn out each month. However, there are many older novels well worth reading. I'm always thrilled to come across an older book that escaped my attention when it first came out yet has the substance and sparkle to compete with newer titles.
One such book is THE FRENCHWOMAN by Jeanne Mackin. Published by St. Martin's Press in 1989, this novel tells the story of Julienne, a poor seamstress who uses her wits, skills and determination to become one of Marie Antoinette's favorite dressmakers. Foreseeing her own arrest, the Queen entrusts Julienne with a jewel meant to ensure the future of the young Dauphin. Pursued by agents of the various factions seeking to keep the Dauphin from regaining the throne, Julienne flees the blood-soaked streets of Revolutionary Paris for the wilderness of Pennsylvania, where French exiles are building a haven for the queen they hope to save. But until Julienne frees herself of the burden of the secret and surrenders the lost world the flawed diamond represents, love and security continue to elude her.
My reading of Catherine Delors' MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION and, more recently, Michelle Moran's MADAME TUSSAUD whetted my appetite for historical fiction set during the French Revolution, and THE FRENCHWOMAN did not disappoint. A parallel with Moran's book made Mackin's all the more interesting: whereas Marie Tussaud collaborates with the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in clothing her wax figures, Julienne actually works as a seamstress in Bertin's shop. It was interesting to experience Bertin's establishment from both an exterior and interior perspective, as well as compare how the two authors depict the commanding figure of Rose Bertin, the creator of many of Marie Antoinette's most famous gowns. Other characters, such as the Duc d'Orléans (Philippe-Égalité) and Robespierre, figure in both books and invite interesting comparisons on how authors interpret and recreate characters from the historical record.
The fact that Julienne, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute, transforms herself into a successful business woman who frequents the Queen's chambers at Versailles, gives the author ample opportunity to explore and depict many levels of Parisian society. Mackin's descriptions of each are detailed and convincing. Especially intriguing is the final section of the book, which takes place on the Pennsylvania frontier. I discovered this novel while searching for information on historical Azilum, an actual French settlement built expressly to house the Queen and her children, whom royalists hoped to smuggle out of France, and was pleased with what I found. Mackin does an excellent job of depicting the French aristocrats' determined if somewhat ludicrous attempts to preserve and sustain the glamour and refinements of their previous existence in the rude, snowbound cabins of Pennsylvania, where wolves howled outside the very doors. The author handles the exiles' psychological motivation--their intense devotion to the monarchy and sincere hope of sheltering the Queen and her children, as well as their reluctance to abandon the past--with respect and a sensitivity that makes it thoroughly believable to a twenty-first century reader.
Narrated by Julienne in the first person, THE FRENCHWOMAN presents a good balance of historical detail and psychological density. Chief among Julienne's difficulties are her ability to trust and her incapacity to forge a healthy love relationship when she has so many things to hide. Although at times the jewel as a plot device seems a trifle forced, on a thematic level it adds great richness to the story. Symbolic of many things--a damaged monarchy; adherence to an outmoded way of life; shameful origins and closely-guarded secrets; unattainable dreams--the jewel is the weight that centers the book and draws together the rays of Julienne's past, a past she must cast off if she hopes to revel in the bright, clear light of the future.
I borrowed this book though interlibrary loan, although it appears available for purchase through used book outlets. This is one book that definitely deserves to be reissued. Jeanne Mackin has written other historical novels and currently writes Louisa May Alcott mysteries under the name Anna Maclean. You can learn more about Ms. Mackin and her work at her website.