Amid the present plethora of bestselling novels set in the Tudor Era, there are a few gems in the historical novel genre set during France’s Ancien Régime and Revolutionary Period. “Mistress of the Revolution” is one such priceless gem. It begins in 1780 in France’s Auvergne Region with the arrival of a young girl (Gabrielle de Monserrat, whose red hair already makes her standout among famille and friends) at her family’s estate, Fontfreyde, from convent school, where she had spent the early years of her life. Gabrielle’s family (made up of an unfeeling mother; an older brother, the Marquis, who has assumed the role of guardian for the 11-year old Gabrielle; and 2 older sisters, one married to a fellow aristocrat, and the other, a nun living in the convent of Noirvaux) have plans for her future.
In the succeeding 4 years, Gabrielle leads a life much in fitting with young ladies of her social class. One day, while riding in the woods near the family estate, she meets her first love, Pierre-Andre Coffinhal, a young doctor and commoner. Upon learning of Gabrielle’s meetings (wholly innocent, for Gabrielle and Pierre-Andre at most exchanged a few, chaste kisses and a tender embrace) with this commoner, the Marquis is enraged and forbades Gabrielle from having anything to do with him. Pierre-Andre, with his brother Jean-Baptiste (who serves Gabrielle’s family as their lawyer), acting as intermediary, petitioned the Marquis for permission to marry Gabrielle. The Marquis strongly rebukes Pierre-Andre, and quickly makes arrangements to have Gabrielle married to a distant family relation, the Baron de Peyre, who is 30 years her senior, highly wealthy, and newly widowed. Gabrielle, intent on eloping with her first love, is betrayed by a trusted servant, and is placed under close confinement by the Marquis until she’s married off.
Upon learning of Gabrielle’s marriage, Pierre-Andre, in deepest despair, leaves for Paris, where he retrains as a lawyer under the tutelage of another brother, Joseph, who practices law there.
The marriage proved to be a cross to bear for Gabrielle, beginning with the wedding night. Baron de Peyre was an imposing, mercurial man much used to getting his own way. He ruled over his estate with an iron hand and was insistent on Gabrielle providing him with a son. She gives birth to a daughter, Aimee, and later suffers a miscarriage (the dead child proved to be a boy). The Baron dies of a heart attack, leaving Gabrielle and Aimee virtually destitute. By feigning a third pregnancy, Gabrielle buys herself some extra time to live on the estate. But, she cannot expect to maintain the pretense of being with child (according to the Baron’s will, if Gabrielle gave birth to a son, the bulk of his estate and wealth would be hers; otherwise, if there was no pregnancy, Gabrielle and Aimee would be given a few thousand francs apiece and forced to vacate the estate), and so, eventually, Gabrielle asks the Marquis to permit her to return to Fontfreyde. He refuses her request and turns his back on Gabrielle.
In the meantime, Gabrielle makes the acquaintance of the Chevalier des Huttes, with whose help she and Aimee move to Paris in late 1787, where their lives are transformed on a vast scale.
Paris would be Gabrielle’s home for 8 years, until the cataclysmic events arising out of the French Revolution and Great Terror would compel her and Aimee to leave France for England.
“Mistress of the Revolution” is told in part in the form of Gabrielle’s memoir. But mainly it is through the author’s skilled storytelling, with her clever juxtaposition of both fictional and historical characters, that the reader is treated to a rich and poignant tale of love, joy, man’s inhumanity to man, and loss.