My understanding of historical fiction is that the audience of readers expects just about every morsel, aside from the fictional existence of the protagonists, to be verifiable or at least highly researched and therefore likely fact. Donna Russo Morin’s book is nothing if not indefatigably researched. Readers experience the entirety of Kind Louis XIV’s court, from the tightly intricate manners and expectations of deportment, which ranged from who had a chair with arms and who could sit in the presence of whom, to the behavior of the courtiers, which, if you’re at all sensitive-
Well, let me start there: if you have a sensitive connection to your sense of smell, and if the description of an odor is enough to make you smell it, this is not the book for you. Donna Russo Morin’s historical research includes every sense, from the sights of the fountains of Versailles, the sounds of courtiers running to meet the King, the feel of the fabric of the women’s dresses, the taste of the rich and opulent foods… and the smells.
Historical accuracy in this novel is largely based on how people smelled. The reader cannot escape that people’s behavior and actual selves were malodorous. In this book, you experience the true luxury of the King’s court, and the depravity. Courtiers take a royal shit in the hallways because there weren’t enough latrines in the palace, or vomit from excesses of wine, leaving servants assigned to the task to clean the hallways within minutes.
In this novel, scents are part of the reality, and the costume.
Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois has recently returned to the court after being tossed out from a convent, unable to curb her rebellious and curious nature. Her father, a status-obsessed abusive nobleman, regularly beats Jeanne’s mother, who is among the innermost circle of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Jeanne’s uncle teachers her fencing in secret, and Jeanne sneaks into all manner of places to learn as much as she can beyond the subjects taught to women at the time.
Jeanne’s behavior is a torment to her father and he arranges to have her married off to a man she dislikes on site, described in the author’s cover copy describes him as “a weak, ineffectual, effeminate man of her father’s choosing,” and while he definitely gives Jeanne the creeps, he doesn’t seem so much the root of evil so much as a continuation of the confined, limited female role she finds so abhorrent.
When Jeanne and her uncle come to the aid of some Musketeers and saves one’s life, because she is wearing her fencing mask and does not remove it, she is mistaken for a man. With her uncle’s help, she disguises herself as a man – not difficult since she resembles her brother and since long hair was the fashion for men at the time – and joins with a young group of Musketeers who are on the trail of a plot to kill the Queen.
Jeanne begins living a double life as a woman caught in the machinations of the court and as a man attempting to fight against a plot to kill the Queen. She falls in love with one of the Musketeers, and has to fight her attraction to him, because she is in effect promised to another.
The plot on the surface sounded terribly fascinating: cross dressing swordswomen who masquerade as musketeers? Sign me up! But as I continued to read, I was distracted by the continual use of smell as a historical detail. As Jeanne dresses in her costume as a man:
felt the sweat dripping down her arms and her gauze-wrapped breasts; she inhaled the fetid odor of her own secretions. What kind of man would I be if I did not smell a little? Jeanne almost giggled again, amused at the question she posed to herself.
Jeanne is forever noticing the musk of her own sweaty self. She finds herself with friends celebrating one man’s fencing victory:
“squished in the tiny circle between three large men, including a severely sweaty and pungent Gerard….”
Smells are not the only element to the historical portrayal. Jeanne is also frequently found swallowing pools of saliva that collect in her mouth, and her examinations of other characters focus on their costume and the degree of falseness that coats every human in the court, from wigs to heeled shoes to mannerisms that are meant to deceive. I can appreciate the author’s intent to contrast the inescapable humanity with the ridiculous posturing of the court at Versailles, but to be honest, after awhile I began to dread what Jeanne would smell next.
I empathized with her position, even though from the start she was foot-stompingly anachronistic, with her inability to sympathize or even commiserate with the other women who were her friends, and her obtuse and stubborn reactions to the court routine and code of conduct. She wanted to be free… but didn’t really define what that meant. While she knows that her masquerade as a man cannot continue, she finds herself a key element to the defense of the Queen, and she also finds her participation to be a heady mixture of action, authority, and autonomy – all the things she covets, wrapped up in one (probably smelly) mustache.
Henri pays lip service to hinting of a more liberated role for women when he remarks that women ought to be listened to, but he says so little that Jeanne’s reaction is so overblown and dramatic that it seems staged for a greeting card advertisement.
Henri says of women:
“It is the lunacy of men not to take advantage of such a valuable commodity…. to ignore such a vast resource of ideas and inventiveness seems…a waste.”
Jeanne could no longer chew or swallow the pieces of carrot in the mouth, so shocked, so delighted, was she by his words. She stared up at him, her smile reverent….
Antoine, Olympe, and Laurent nodded their heads almost in unison, recognizing as well the blossom of love as it took firm root.
Cue the swell of music! Aaaand cut!
The action is nonstop: the plot follows Jeanne from fencing to court to disguises back to court, and the intrigue develops quickly. But because of the focus on the humanity contained in stinky people, I dreaded reading Jeanne’s point of view. God forbid there be a sex scene, I noted at one point, because her description of ball stank will knock me right off the couch. The finale of the book wraps up in record time, and I was left with more questions than answers.
Those who seek incredibly deep and sweaty descriptions of human life in a rich, opulent and turbulent time period will very much enjoy the book, but they will likely embrace the setting and the revealed details, which number in the thousands, than the plot itself. Those looking for cross dressing swordswomen disguised as musketeers will have to look past the stubborn anachronistic heroine and the hero who is more of a foil for her desire for autonomy than a fully developed hero. The difference in the development of the history contrasted with the many stock elements of the protagonists left me disappointed and often dreading what smell would come next.