Written by Jenny Shelton

Arts

Shelf Life

Can’t decide which book to take for your holiday reading? Jenny Shelton takes a look at Hallie Rubenhold’s The French Lesson.

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A historical novel championed by TV’s Lucy Worsley was always going to grab my attention. Especially one featuring a lady in a large hat operating a guillotine on its cover. And so it was that The French Lesson found its way onto my bedside table this summer.

Written by Hallie Rubenhold (author of The Scandalous Lady W, adapted by the BBC and starring Natalie Dormer), it promises ‘a story of deceit, revolution and murder’, set in revolutionary France.

This is a novel which tips you head-first into the past. The words ring with such 18th-century authenticity that The French Lesson might easily be a lost Fanny Burney manuscript. It can come over a little formal at times – this is the Revolution as described by the wealthy classes – but you’ll find no modern clangers to upset the historians here.

Ice and a slice?

Rubenhold is an author who knows her 18th-century France. Not just the bits we learned in school, but the real-life, sometimes gritty bits. Her description of Henrietta preparing for a visit from her wealthy lover is rich with fascinating, visceral detail. I won’t be able to look at limes in the same way again. And the words with which she introduces us to the faded, now-empty Palais-Royal, where ‘every wall winked with mirrors’ and our heroine and her maid rattle around ‘like two small beads forgotten at the bottom of a coffer’ is vivid and gorgeous.

‘I have never comprehended the French’

There’s also a strong theme of national identity and loyalty. Henrietta is an Englishwoman abroad and alone in a country newly defining itself. Through her eyes we see the strange, more familiar behaviour of her French hosts and feel her increasing awareness of the power of patriotism.

“Throughout the plot, Henrietta is buffeted about from situation to situation, determined by other people. I was forever willing her to throw wine in someone’s face, turn on her dainty heel and become the architect of her own destiny.”

As for her personal loyalties, I found I didn’t greatly care which of her two friends – the one she’s sent to spy on, or the one she’s spying for – she would eventually pledge to. There was a little too much Shakespearean dithering and pious soul-searching: I like my spy heroines a little more devious.

Holding out for a heroine

As a protagonist, I found Henrietta somewhat flat. Here is a young woman who, in pursuit of love (of course), careers unthinking into the most turbulent city in the world. Sounds exciting, and I adore characters doing stupid things for love.

But tearful, fearful Henrietta is so naive and lovestruck that I couldn’t get fully behind her choices. Her lover, Allenham, isn’t strongly fleshed out: we only meet him briefly at the start. And there’s no fond, Austen-style jibing from the author, as the narrative voice is Henrietta herself. She’s Northanger’s Catherine Morland, but without the charm or dramatic irony.

Neither is she mistress of her own fate. Throughout the plot, Henrietta is buffeted about from situation to situation, determined by other people – Allenham, the rakish Savill, Mrs Elliot and then Madame de Buffon. I was forever willing her to throw wine in someone’s face, turn on her dainty heel and become the architect of her own destiny.

That’s not to say the book is empty of excellent characters. While Henrietta was fretting indecisively, I wanted to sneak off and explore La Buffon’s back story. Passionate, political, pregnant and misunderstood, she was much more compelling. Also worth a note is Henrietta’s smart and loyal maid, Lucy. One feels she’d have a few stories to tell, should you ever get her tipsy on the master’s claret.

‘My devoted readers’

I find novels in reported speech hard to connect with, which is why I’m glad the epistolary novel was more or less left behind in the 19th century, along with Empire lines and typhoid. The French Lesson begins with Henrietta as an older woman, taking tea with a friend and being asked to recall her experience of living in revolutionary France. This story is then what we read, but having already met her older self, some of the peril is lost as we know she lives, literally, to tell the tale.

The French Lesson coverA sense of urgency and immediacy is lost. Henrietta being swarmed by an increasingly violent mob is an excellent scene, but I’d rather have lived it with her, hearing her raw, present thoughts, than have her fears and memories of the event recalled from a place of comfort. For me it created a distance from the action, and from the character.

There’s a lot to like about this novel; rich in refreshing historical detail and full of dangerous escapes and tense carriage rides. However there was less of the darkness I was expecting, and a genteelness of tone which prevented me truly getting close to the characters. There are strong women, particularly the self-made Mrs Elliot, who use their wits to survive, but there’s also a great deal of fainting. And not one woman (in a large hat or otherwise) nonchalantly chops off anyone’s head.

The French Lesson is available in hardback, priced £14.99
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Written by Jenny Shelton

Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.