See, I love France. I love the food and the art and the cinema. I love the cobblestone streets strewn with leaves and dog poo alike, and I love the mega-stores and tiny boutiques. I appreciate their massive anal attitude towards their language, and am utterly envious of French women who all seem born with the Instant Style Gene. Whenever I go to France, the minute I step off the plane, I feel like I’ve come home.
In other words, I don’t get the semi-automatic “anti-French, anti-revolution bias” that Jennie at Dear Author says is “common to most everyone but the French”, but that, honestly, I think is really only common to English-speakers. (Stereo)typically-speaking. So I’m happy whenever I read a book that’s mainly set in France. (The temporary excursions just, somehow, don’t count.) Pre-Louis XIV is pretty thin on the grounds, but there’s always Susan Carroll’s witch series, starting with Silver Rose, and the second book of the Renaissance Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. In the pre-Revolutionary 18th century there are Georgette Heyer’s classic These Old Shades and Anne Stuart’s recent Ruthless. Turn-of-the-century, I’ve read Susan Johnson’s Forbidden and Judy Cuevas’ Beast, and heard amazing things about Bliss and Dance. All are really good books.
But you’ll notice there’s a gap. A gigantic chronological hole between Ruthless and the 20th century. Yup: I’m talking about the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, aka Regency England. Hey, I’m not stupid: I’ve got a pretty good idea why France is generally portrayed as evil hot springs of revolutionary foment and vertically-challenged megalomaniacs.
Which brings me to Joanna Bourne’s blog. She has now written two fabulous and multi-faceted books set wholly or partially in France, and her September blog discusses the whole Regency and France issue. She makes a trio of excellent points, to whit:
- Regency is familiar. It’s a helluva shortcut when the setting requires almost no effort from the writer. Everyone knows Bond Street and Almack’s; it’s a different story when you have to describe the Café Foy and Pont Neuf.
- Revolution does not equal Napoleonic Wars. Napoleonic Wars are relatively easy to write about – English Good, Napoleon Bad. The Revolution, on the other hand, was not that simple, which leads to the fact that….
- Escapist literature does not lend itself to depressing matters. Like people getting decapitated. Or the fact that, well, not all French were bad, and not all of England’s motives were pure.
Not that some authors haven’t tried, and succeeded, to be less Manichean in their portrait of Ruritania vs. Gaul, and not that you could really do much else when a Regency is set during the Wars. I mean, the French were the enemy – even the most wallpapery of wallpaper historicals get that much. But with few exceptions you still come to same basic conclusion: Napoleon and the Revolution were bad, the Spanish civilians were victims, and the French aristos and Wellington were good. I’m not necessarily disagreeing, but nothing – nothing – is that simple.
What are the exceptions I’ve read? Well, Joanna Bourne, for one. Susan Squires’ Time for Eternity, for another, and Cheryl Sawyer’s The Code of Love and Isolde Martyn’s Fleur-de-Lys (both out of print). Although I admit it’s been a long time since I read the last two, I remember being impressed that both authors wrote about French couples who ended up staying in France, despite the historical resolutions.
So, authors, if you decide to venture outside the boundaries, just know that you’ve got at least one hardcore Francophile in the ether. And I’d love to read more from you.
– Jean AAR