A noblewoman suffers several close brushes with the guillotine during the French Revolution in this debut novel from Delors.
Gabrielle, from a noble family in Auvergne, sees her ancestral château for the first time at age 11, after she’s removed from convent boarding school by her brother, the Marquis de Montserrat. Her mother, whom she hardly knows, is cold and hypercritical, and as Gabrielle matures, her brother makes incestuous overtures to her. While visiting her former wet nurse, a peasant woman, Gabrielle falls in love with Pierre-André, a young doctor. The Marquis forbids her to wed Pierre-André because he is a commoner. Instead, when she turns 15, her family forces her to marry middle-aged Baron de Peyre, who proves a volatile, brutal husband. When he dies suddenly, leaving Gabrielle a pittance, she flees with daughter Aimée to Paris, where she finds refuge with a distant cousin, a duchess who introduces her to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Gabrielle becomes the mistress of the Count de Villers, who keeps her in grand style but often displays a cruel streak. When the Revolution begins, and Villers is killed defending the Tuileries Palace, Gabrielle is imprisoned, but acquitted by a peoples’ court. Meanwhile, Pierre-André, now a lawyer, has become an influential magistrate under the new regime, and remains so throughout the various power shifts of the Revolution, while his contemporaries are losing their heads. Gabrielle seeks his help in procuring identity documents falsifying her aristocratic past, and the two rekindle their romance. Gabrielle is again arrested when her employer, whose advances she spurns, informs on her. Pierre-André secures her release and obtains his mentor Robespierre’s blessings for the relationship. But a sudden reversal of Robespierre’s political fortunes leaves Pierre-André and Gabrielle at the mob’s mercy. Delors, who was born in France, writes competently in English, but at times her prose reads like a stilted translation.
The Revolution’s successive upheavals form an engrossing backdrop to Gabrielle’s predicament, but she’s too timid a protagonist to command center stage.