I am a bit of a Francophile and I have a soft spot for the ladies of the 18th and 19th century demi-monde, which would have sold this book to me instantly. But then to add this cover AND a quote from one of my favourite historians? Well, I’m sold!
Set in the tumultuous period of the French Revolution before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were put to death, the novel tells the story of Henrietta Lightfoot: a young Englishwoman, illegitimate daughter of a duke, lover of an AWOL lord and an inhabitant of the underworlds of both London and Paris.
Hetty finds herself in Paris after her lover, an English aristocrat, is called away from Brussels in the name of King and Country. But instead of going home to London, she embarks on a dangerous search for him in a city that is little more than a powder keg waiting to explode. Along the way, she falls in with some dubious characters and almost finds herself in her own meeting with Madame Guillotine.
I was aware of Rubenhold’s work around scandalous Georgian women (her biography of Lady Seymour Worsley has been on my wish list for ages and was adapted into a BBC drama last year starring Natalie Dormer), and true to her historical roots, there are many of the real characters from the French Revolution in this book. The Duc d’Orleans, his mistress Agnes de Buffon and an English courtesan rumoured to have been a spy, Grace Dalyrmple Elliot, are all major characters. Having gone away and looked at portraits of each of them, they are remarkably well described and believable as characters.
As a protagonist, I liked Hetty and I rooted for her. Her desire to be independent in a violent world in which the odds were stacked against women was interesting and seeing how she navigated the pitfalls of a society in which everyone is a potential informer was, at times, incredibly thrilling. I was definitely hooked.
The story itself was fast-paced and tightly plotted. Although some of the twists were not hugely surprising, this did not detract from my enjoyment- and there were some things that were unexpected. The book kept me reading and desperate to find out if Hetty would get her happy ending in a setting in which few were ever granted.