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Daughter of the Revolution by C Guy Clayton
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Daughter of the Revolution

by C Guy Clayton

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It took three attempts to actually read this 'revision' of Baroness Orczy's 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', and I only succeeded because my love of the original series is no longer as fanatical as it once was (and because I could skip through the less than thoughtful text in an afternoon). 'Daughter of the Revolution' - the first book in the 'Blakeney Papers' trilogy - is still an insult, however. The jury is still out as to whether C. Guy Clayton is a misogynist, a tubthumping feminist, or a second-rate Mills and Boon writer.

A pastiche of Orczy and picaresque novels like Voltaire's Candide (although not quite as witty), Clayton rewrites 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' from a 'modern' angle. Dismissing the original novel as a romantic fantasy, Clayton claims to have merely 'translated' into English the real story of Marguerite St. Just, written in the first person by Lady Blakeney herself and told to the Vicomte de Tournay. A clever device, but for the fact that Clayton's Marguerite is a conceited, amoral and wholly unpleasant protagonist with no depth as a character. She is the female version of Fraser's Flashman, entirely lacking a conscience and revelling in intrigue and seduction; entertaining, but not at all convincing.

Orczy's Marguerite is a strong woman, complex and flawed; Clayton puts her in drag and makes her an honorary man. (It still baffles me how many authors of historical fiction imagine that the figure of an eighteenth century woman could easily be disguised as a man, or a boy, in this case. When an actress played a 'breeches role' on stage, it was a form of titilation for the male audience, who could admire her curves normally concealed beneath layers of petticoats.) Yet Marguerite is able to dress as 'Armand', cancelling out her beloved brother, and fool men and women alike into believing she is a young lad. A tired device.

An equally dated romance trope is rape, the violent subjection of the heroine which has little or no emotional impact but justifies why she doesn't want to get married. Marguerite is attacked by a 'bestial aristocrat', who takes what she was quite willing to give away, and then goes onto bed nearly every man she meets, from Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Sir Percy's best friend in Orczy's books, to Talleyrand! (As she is told in a confrontation towards the end of the book, 'The whole world's had you!') There is no calculation or instinct for self-preservation involved, as with courtesans or mistresses, Clayton is simply challenging the Victorian morality of Orczy's writing. To have a heroine who marries the man she loves is old-fashioned; a bow-legged cross-dresser is far more fashionable.

Clayton makes his point again and again, smugly inferring that Orczy got it wrong. Marguerite comes to the rescue of Sir Andrew, who must pose as a 'deaf-mute' (or an idiot, as people would have described such a disablity two hundred years ago) and 'sit there unable to do or say a thing'. The 'Scarlet Pimpernel' is now a business concern for Sir Percy, who built his own empire after his grandfather gambled away the family fortune ('9/10ths of all you see around you can truly be called my own'); human trafficking instead of humanitarian concern. And of course much is made of Marguerite's 'convictions' - she is republican before there was a republic, French to the core (preferable to 'rotting your life away' as the wife of an English squire), and violently independent. She only agrees to marry Sir Percy to save his life - she doesn't love him, because that would be a weakness, but grudgingly takes on the 'role' of Lady Blakeney so that he won't be sent to the guillotine as an inept spy. Poor Percy is usually emasculated by writers who 'borrow' Orczy's characters, but the role reversal in Clayton's story is baffling - why on earth would Percy want Marguerite, apart from her obvious 'qualifications'?

If you want a heroine who is beautiful, impetuous and passionate, read Orczy's novel; if transplanting 'Forever Amber' ahead in time to the French Revolution sounds more exciting, give this book a try. For romance based in history, 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' is still a popular choice over 100 years after it was first published; for a history lesson, 'The Daughter of the Revolution' is keen to correct any factual errors in Orczy's writing without really making an impact of its own.

The biggest irony of Clayton's book is that only dedicated fans of Orczy will ever read it. My copy was in the reserve stack of the library - thankfully with a less garish cover - but there was only the first instalment, so thankfully I am spared the 'experience' of reading the sequels. ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Sep 3, 2009 |
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