To begin with – I adore the Baroque and Rococo era, the Enlightenment, the art, the architecture, the intellectual atmosphere, the whole both rational and decadent epoque and, of course, historical fiction as well. It was only logical I should pick a contemporary novel set in 18th century France located in court of a duc close to the king in Versailles. I was delighted – the atmosphere was very fitting: the chateau, the wealth, the gardens, the hedge maze, the orange grove, the hairstyles, the dresses, the makeup, the eavesdropping, the court intrigue, pure luxury and decadence throughout the novel.
“Perfect virtue is a rare and precious thing. I’m not convinced it even exists. For any of us.”
Slowly but captivatingly we are being lead into the life at court in Blois, near Paris. A wealthy duc spends his time and fortune between castles, parties, the king, and his many mistresses. We encounter something we are unaccustomed to – the normality of a noble man having a wife and mistresses, all living together in perfect (or not so much) harmony. Mistresses make a contract with their future lover, they get money sent to their family, as if they were legal wives. But, of course, the emotional is never as easy as the formal. A problem arises when a new mistress arrives, young and beautiful, that has not only captured her lover’s time and affection, but his heart as well.
“Men would prefer we do not think at all, merely adorn ourselves for their pleasure. I have a game for you. Watch the women tonight, and the fine courtiers. Some live only to please men and others live only to please themselves. Of course, as mistresses, we fall within the former group. It is not impossible, though, to think of ourselves.”
There is an array of complex female characters; male characters are only supporting actors to the interesting, glorious female roles: the duchesse Charlotte – a desperate wife, unable to give her husband a male heir or her love, she doesn’t feel she has a purpose anymore. She is completely lost in her agony and jealousy, she has spies and helpers against the new mistress and in the end uses love potions, forged letters, the occult and poison for her purposes. Completely lost, very adequate to the era, she repents for her tragic sins and leaves her secular life behind to join the monastery.
Céline is a true courtier, she is hurt by not being an important mistress any more and she wants to eliminate the newest mistress, not out of jealousy, but out of spite. She is prone to eavesdropping, scheming and doesn’t even draw the line at poisoning. But, there is something else here as well, she is not only a weaselly character prone to intrigue, there is some hidden and forbidden love here, but not towards the duc – towards the duchesse.
Henriette is a person of true conviction, she does only what she believes in, has her principles regardless of the consequences or social norms. She befriends the new mistress Letitia knowing she is going to lose her place and importance with the duchesse and her place at court. She doesn’t want a relationship with a man just to be married or to be content, she wants a relationship with a man only because he is a good man, a man who could be good to her. I enjoyed that touch of unconventionality and modernity in her.
“I must manage and direct my life, monsieur, or others will insist on doing it for me.”
Women have no say in their lives, be they wives, mistresses or daughters. They are powerless, they have to obey others: men. They have no right to make any important decisions on their own. Strong women always encounter difficulties, but strong women are always the only ones making the ‘real’, actual decisions. They are the force behind plain and uninteresting men, as all of the male characters here are exactly that: the duc, Romain, the marquise, and even the king. Women might be under the power of men, they lack freedom, but they do all the decision making ‘behind the scenes’, they make men decide what they wish. Men, in this novel (and maybe always), are puppets in the end. Strong women, like Henriette, find a way to be free. Maybe not as free as men, but more free than they were meant to be by society.
Saying it in a Hegelian way, every cloud has a silver lining.
“...men are quite stupid and simple. They do not plan, devise, or see subtleties the way we do. This is our advantage. Some might say the bedroom is our advantage, too, but this is rather less dignified. It is a weapon in our arsenal, but a lesser one. The true weapon lies in the use of our minds.”
There are elements of the mystical, the occult, that leave us wondering – did the black mass work or was it only humans who did all the work? In the spirit of Baroque rationalism I vote for the latter – reason and human desires are the driving forces of the universe.
“For a woman, everything is a decision. Even love.”
There is a lot of passion, a lot of sin, and a lot of rationality in this novel, such a perfect mix. Very reminiscent of the novel Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It is interesting, fast paced, paints an interesting historical world, so distant from us now, but very close to home.
The Orange Grove
By Kate Murdoch
253 pages. 2019.