Vive la France!

France_Paris_Night1This subject has been on my mind for a while, but two recent-ish blogs got me writing: Joanna Bourne’s musings on the topic, and Lynn’s request for Italian-set romance novels.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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….
  3. 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

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25 Responses to Vive la France!

  1. LeeAnn says:

    Has no one read the Angelique series by Sergeanne Golon? DEFINITELY French and wonderful action, adventure and ROMANCE!

  2. LeeB. says:

    I like this blog but especially love your second paragraph. :)

  3. Valerie L. says:

    I loved the Angelique series when I was in high school! It was my introduction to romantic literature and I devoured each and every book. And I’ve been lucky enough to have been to France 3 times, with hopes to return again and again. And yes, when I land, and especially when I’m walking those cobbled streets, I do feel like I’ve come home. Bring on more French-set books! I’d buy them.

  4. AAR Sandy says:

    I can imagine it’s a plotting problem when you know that your artistocratic characters in 10 years or so are going to run smack dab into the French revolution.

    Ditto, honestly, later-set Victorian and Edwardian books. World War I is looming ever closer.

    • Noelinya says:

      AAR Sandy: I can imagine it’s a plotting problem when you know that your artistocratic characters in 10 years or so are going to run smack dab into the French revolution.

      It’s the same problem with Scotland in the 18th century, you know a lot of people will be dead by the hands of English soldiers, but a lot of romances set are there

  5. AAR Sandy says:

    Thinking about this a little further, it’s interesting that American readers have no trouble identifying the British as heroes when, hello, things were not friendly between our two countries in the 19th century.

    Why are we able to do this with the Brits and not the French?

  6. LynnD says:

    I too would love to see more romances set in France, including historical romances. In addition to Joanne Bourne, Susan Carroll and the Lymond Chroniicles, I have read a number of excellent historical novels (they aren’t romances though) including Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B trilogy (about Napoleon’s wife Josephine) and Mistress of the Sun (about Louis IV’s mistress Louise de la Valiere) and Catherine Delors’ Mistress of the Revolution and For the King. It seems to me that there were a lot more French-set romances published in the late 80s and early 90s, but the only one that comes to mind at the moment is Storm Winds by Iris Johansen (part of the Wind Dancer Trilogy) – it is set in Paris and Provence during the Revolution.

  7. Estelle says:

    It’s not often I see a pro-French post on the net. I’m not offended by the anti-French sentiment I see floating around a lot (I’m French but I’m not blind to all that’s wrong in my country) but this post put a smile on my face.

    I do not feel this “dearth” of book set in France because I’m lucky to be a native speaker and I’ve read tons of books set during varied periods of French history. But French entertainment (books, movies, music etc…) doesn’t sell well abroad so the books I’ve read will never be translated in English.

    But speaking of the romance genre, I don’t know of one single French author that could be classified as a Romance author. The ones that could come the closest to being so are authors like Anne and Serge Golon, Juliette Benzoni, Régine Desforges etc… But they walk a fine line between fiction and romance. I love the Angélique series but if you take into account all 15 books, probably only 20% of the whole series could be considered a ‘romance’. All the romantic literature we get are translated books (and very often the translation is awful unfortunately) from the US and the UK.

    Since many of you here seem to know the Angélique series, I wonder if you’ve seen the 5 movies made a few decades ago? I don’t know if they’ve ever been translated or not.

    And speaking of movies….I feel that what we do best are historical movies or miniseries. The vast majority of them haven’t been dubbed or subbed but some are and would give you your French fix in moving pictures. Even better than a book to get a real feel of the country andi ts culture.

  8. AAR Sandy says:

    I checked the Angelique books out of my small town library. (Make that very conservative small town library.) I remember the books as being quite racy (especially for a 12 or 13 year old) but they were addictive. I think I must have read them all.

  9. JMM says:

    LOL! I’ve often wondered about that “Evvviiiiiiillllllll Frenchies vs. Noble and Pure English” myself. Does no one remember the fact that England was at war with the US during part of that time? That the French were allies to America when it was becoming America?

  10. PatF says:

    For three years I lived with my parents about 1 1/2 hours from Paris when I was in high school. Those were wonderful years that left me with an appreciation of most things French. I totally agree re: the Instant Style Gene.

  11. Susan/DC says:

    Tracy Grant’s “Shores of Desire” has a hero who is a Bonapartist, and Pam Rosenthal’s “The Bookseller’s Daughter” takes place in pre-Revolutionary France. Both are very good, very satisfying romances, and I recommend them both to those who want to read something other than books where the French are “all evil, all the time”. They both should be easy enough to find online.

  12. Jean, if you haven’t already read it, you might try Isobel Martyn’s “Fleur de Lys” which is set in Revolutionary/Napoleonic France. The final scene shows the hero and heroine at Napoleon’s coronation.

  13. LOL! Sorry. That will teach me to skim read. You’ve mentioned Isolde’s Fleur de Lys. I’ll just creep back into my box.

  14. Cindy says:

    Jane Feather wrote one, Velvet, that goes back and forth between France and England. She actually does a really good job of showing that the Napoleonic wars were not all black and white. The heroine, in particular, had a mixed background and felt loyalty to both countries. It is definitely an interesting exploration of the grey area of the wars.

  15. maggie b. says:

    I can remember a lot of books set in France during the 80′s but can’t remember titles or authors.

    Sally Gardner has two YA books “The Red Necklace” and the “Silver Blade” which are fabulous, a mix of romance and fantasy (the characters are in their teens).

    “Eight” by Kathryn Neville is an adventure/romance/treasure hunt novel which takes place in the 1970′s and the French Revolution. Absolutely terrific book.

    “The Last Time I Saw Paris” by Elizabeth Adler is a contemp romance that takes place partially in France.

    maggie b.

  16. Tracy Grant says:

    Fascinating topic! Lauren Willig wrote a similar post (inspired by this one) today on History Hoydens. It’s very timely for me as ast night I finished the first draft of a book set around the Battle of Waterloo. While most of the major characters are British (real and fictional), the heroine is a French agent (unbeknownst to most of the other characters, very much including the hero). So while they’re tending the wounded in Brussels, the heroine is as on tenterhooks for news of the battle like the other characters but in a very different way. And then when they’re celebrating victory, she’s dealing with the final end of a very tarnished dream. My heroine in “Secrets of a Lady”/”Daughter of the Game” (essnentially the same character) was a French agent, and there was a lot of debate about the Napoleonic Wars between the hero and heroine, but it was after the fact, and she’d stopped spying. It was a different experience to write about her working for the French in the midst of the conflict. Waterloo is so iconic, but most of the fiction I’ve read about it is from the British perspective. Though as Susan mentions, my historical romance, “Shores of Desire”, deals with Waterloo and has a French hero and a Scottish heroine. I thinking writing about Waterloo from a slightly different perspective is what gives me the guts to take on something that’s been written about so much and so well.

    As to the English bias, I wonder if a lot of it doesn’t come from a common language. We can read English books, which tend to convey the English pov, without translation. Then too, I think we’re still very much a country that was once a British colony. Though without the French, we never would have won the Revolutionary war…

  17. Ann Stephens says:

    I’m delighted to find someone else who likes France! No nation is exclusively good or bad, despite what you see or read in editorial columns. (And actually, if some of my mother-in-law’s relations are any indication, no nation has a lock on the Instant Style Gene either. Just saying.)

    I loved visiting France, and I enjoyed the people and their idiosyncrasies. Most of them demonstrated patience and good humor when I stumbled through sentences with my high school French. Yes, I did get corrected, but with friendly smiles, not scorn. I’d go back in a minute!

    Tracy, your book about a French agent waiting for news of Waterloo, and all that it implies for her, tugs at my heart. My mother-in-law grew up in France during World War Two, and occasionally speaks of what life was like for the losing side in a war. (When the Germans arrived in 1940, her village had no way of knowing they’d be gone in 1944.)

  18. Maria F says:

    Blanche Chenier’s Return of the Swallows (1975) is a book I read over and over in my teens. It takes place during the Revolution–including the Terror. One of the heroine’s friends is Josephine (before her marriage to Napoleon) and her brother-in-law is a revolutionary (heroine is an aristo in severely reduced circumstances, IIRC). The hero (her eventual husband) is a deaf-mute. More historical fiction than romance, but enough romance to be satisfying (IMO). Gives a good sense of the turbulence of the period while avoiding easy black/white designations.

  19. Sarah says:

    I’ve noticed more titles coming out set in 16th century Franch – e.g. THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI and HOSTAGE QUEEN (Catherine and her daughter Margot). Perhaps it’s an extention of the religious wars “started” in England with WOLF HALL etc. Donna Russo Morgan has TO SERVE A KING, set during the reign of Francois 1, coming out in March. I’ve also noticed more titles about the French Revolution (NOT the Napoleonic times, which fascinates me) and about 17th century England with their Civil War (e.g. LADY OF THE BUTTERFLIES, CORRAG, THE LADY’S SLIPPER) which had its roots in the Tudor times and which was really the first middle-class revolution.

  20. Barbara says:

    I just finished reading Nicola Cornick’s One Wicked Sin. Although set in England the hero, who is Irish, has fought on the French side. When asked why, his description of the prinicples of the Revolution fit with the rebellioness of both the Americans and the Irish. It is one of the rare times that you find someone in romance literature who actually is on the side of the French.

  21. msaggie says:

    Apart from the books already mentioned, most of the historicals set in France that I can think of aren’t strictly “romance” – and as many have said, the books tend to be from the English perspective when it’s set in the Napoleonic era. I loved Regine Deforges’ the Blue Bicycle books.

    Maggie Anton’s books on Rashi’s daughters (one for each of the daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel) are set in medieval France (11th century) – but they are more historical novels of a great Talmudic family. And Judith Merkle Riley’s In Pursuit of the Green Lion is largely set in France (with a Norman hero!)

    The only more recent French romance which hasn’t been brought up yet that I can think of is Anna Gavalda’s Hunting and Gathering.

  22. Hannah says:

    I’m an Anglophile and a Francophile (and a Russophile for that matter) which leaves me a bit confused. I can think of a few French heros but for some reason they’re almost always paired with English heroines. No, I can also think of French heroines paired with English or American heros.
    Have you read the recently reissued Désirée by Annemarie Selinko? It’s probably more on the historical fiction than romance side of things, but it’s most definitely about France.

  23. Pingback: Perspectives across the Channel « Tracy Grant – Novelist

  24. RachelT says:

    I’ve come to this really late – via the list of Italian set books (I’m going to Venice for a long weekend in February – aren’t you envious?).

    I think the Scarlet Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy were my first introduction to historical romance. I can remember sitting in our apple tree during my summer holidays when I was 10 reading them one by one. To this day one of my favourite themes is that of a married couple falling in love with each other (either for the first or second time). It has been great fun since driving west from Calais, identifying a number of places mentioned in the books.

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