Mistress of the Revolution
by Catherine Delors
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Mistress of the Revolution opens like a rollercoaster as its beautiful young heroine falls inappropriately in love and discovers that under the laws and customs of pre-Revolutionary France she is not a human being with rights but a commodity at the disposal of her male relations. The target of this biting novel is less the male sex than legal codes and cultural norms that strip power from certain groups of people while granting others an excess. Absolute power corrupts…
Readers follow Gabrielle from provincial France where her family are minor nobility, to Paris and Versailles where the aristocracy is burning itself out in an orgy of conspicuous consumption. Marie Antoinette is a grumpy woman with "an elongated face, a thick lower lip, bulging blue eyes and ruddy cheeks, either naturally or from too much rouge," who comes "alive, enthralled by the game" when she gambles at cards.
As the violence and spasmodic idealism of the Revolution erupts, Gabrielle's personal struggle widens to include concern for her country and the people from various walks of life to whom she has grown close. She and her fellow citizens pick their way through the constantly shifting legal codes that govern their daily lives, while the mounting piles of headless bodies remind them of the perils of a false step.
Gabrielle asks a judge, "Do you ever feel any pity for the accused?" He reminds her that before the Revolution the legal process included torture as a matter of course and might end with the defendant being broken on the wheel—a fact of which Gabrielle is only too aware. But the new principles of equality are of little benefit to her. Pressuring her for sexual favors, one man explains that "we are not talking about the liberty of women here. What matters is equality between men. If you allege your liking for one man to decline the proposals of another, you violate the principle of equality." (2008, 451 pages)
More about Mistress of the Revolution from Powell's Books
Another feminist novel set during the French Revolution:
City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy
Nonfiction about women in the French Revolution:
Women's Rights and the French Revolution: a Biography of Olympe de Gouges by Sophie Mousset (2007)
The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution by Dominique Godineau (1998)
Wikipedia article about Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791
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