Monday, February 11, 2008

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness

you say you want a revolution, part deux

“In every lifetime there are a few luminous memories that explode like sparks of darkness in the mind.”

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler is another way of viewing the French Revolution, and as such makes a good companion piece to Marie-Antoinette: The Journey. The life of Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin, is certainly filled with enough excitement to cover the 400-odd pages of the book.

The book starts at sea, which is always a promising beginning in my opinion, but I found the first chapter difficult to get into because of what I found to be a recurring problem, point of view. Maybe it was useless, what was drilled into me in every single creative writing course from age 18 to 23, the insistence on a single point of view, as every book seems to transgress it, science fiction novels usually being the worst (to be fair, The Woman in White uses multiple points of view but these are clearly delineated using mock diaries, journals, accounts, etc). Bluebird begins from the perspective of the poorly trained captain of The Diana, a one-masted ship on its way to Boston bearing a desperate family of French aristocrats who have just escaped Revolutionary France. It is, indeed, an exciting way to begin the book, which holds the suspense through three-quarters of it, but the captain is fairly incidental in proportion to the number of thoughts he contributes.

Complicating matters further is that the action is told in present tense, with Lucy’s past-tense recollections in first person italics! The narration is driven by Lucy, then by her husband Frédéric, then by figures such as Talleyrand or a syphilitic page at Lucy’s first ball. I confess I became accustomed to it, but at first I found it quite jarring. I suspect the scope of the story lends itself to a cinematic quality which is what Kohler is trying to capture with these multiple points of view. In the case of Frédéric, it is often impossible to understand his actions without the benefit of his thoughts. Which is a shame, since Kohler often draws her characters so deftly using character description and collections of attributes.

Lucy’s semi-Cinderella existence perfectly mirrors the “ephemeral, illusory” world of the 1780s for French aristocrats. Her mother is a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, her father a naturalized Irishman, descendent of the Jacobite rebels of the 1690s and a veteran of the American Revolution. After her mother’s death, Lucy is in thrall to her cruel grandmother and florid great-great uncle, an archbishop, vowing to get married and get out as soon as she can. Many of the players in this court scene will be familiar to readers of Marie-Antoinette: Count Fersen, Monsieur (the King’s brother), the Duke d’Orleans, the Princess de Lamballe, the Polignacs, but with certainly a different spin. Marie-Antoinette is a rather stupid, vain, self-important creature rather than the sympathetic, complex woman of the Fraser book.

Easily my favorite section of the book—I’m a romantic, so it’s no surprise—is when Lucy meets her fiancé Frédéric for the first time. Their marriage has been arranged before they have even met, though Lucy has been hiding behind a curtain when Frédéric has come to her grandmother’s house to call and ask permission to pay his addresses. It is at this point that my writerly objections over Kohler’s point of view issues melt into slush: “He, too, felt a physical shock of sympathy at the sight of her, as though his own heart resonated with the thunder of hers. . . . It seemed to him that everything around her . . . were part of her and had thus acquired something distinctive. Even the warm air around her was suddenly different: good, sweet, drinkable. . . . He had only known her a moment, but he had already decided he would love her.” The feeling is mutual, and another beautiful section takes place right before their wedding, walking the grounds at Versailles. Oblivious to the rioting peasant women about to storm the strongholds of the nobility, they are happy merely to love each other.

They will need this strong love to survive the tribulations of the Revolution. After a miscarriage and a stillbirth, Lucy gives birth to a son, Humbert. The family is then swept up in the Revolution—Lucy takes the children to the Hague, Frédéric, as son of the minister of war for Louis XVI, stays in France and eventually goes into hiding. Lucy must disguise herself as a peasant woman in sabots and a red kerchief; their daughter Séraphine is born in an extremely dangerous situation. Their survival turns on a few instances of strikingly good luck (including Tallien’s mistress Thérésia, who has only met Lucy once previously, saving her life) and then a torturous two-month cross-Atlantic voyage. This is all well-structured and makes for good reading.

Certainly we are meant to feel sympathy for Lucy and her family even though they were born into a life of privilege. We see the excesses of the French court, but we are more concerned about how these aristocrats will avoid the guillotine. Frédéric wonders “where it is that he has gone wrong? He has tried to live his life with the kind of energy and courage and diligence his grandfather has always displayed. He has attempted to follow his high principles . . . Why should he be the one to survive?” The end of the book is quite depressing from that perspective.

Kohler writes many of the personalities of the age with authority and verve, such as Tallien (“He had a pretty, insignificant, girlish face with a rather long nose, which tilted upward with a kind of optimism”), Talleyrand (“Despite these qualities, despite her beauty, her exceptional complexion, she is not the sort of woman he would want for a mistress”), Madame de Staël (“how easily she abandoned herself to any man who found her worthy of his passion”), a revolutionary named Bonie (“he sported an enormous mustachio and carried a long fierce-looking saber, swinging from his shoulder”), and even Alexander Hamilton (“She finds his face distinctive, his manners gentlemanly, his mind intelligent, well-formed, and full of energy”). It is thus somewhat appalling to read at the end that Kohler has more than tinkered with facts, making me wonder how much of Lucy’s story is true and how much has been invented. It shouldn’t matter, I suppose, since it makes for a good story, but if Kohler wants us to admire Lucy Dillon—which she clearly does—how can we do so not knowing the truth of her story?

Strangely, the most vital part of the book is after the family arrives in Boston and Lucy begins her short-lived but much-loved dream of running her own farm. Frédéric, intellectual and unambitious, misses France and is unable to cope with farming; his wife, on the other hand, takes to it beautifully, running the farm successfully and almost single-handedly. Indeed, it is as if she has been preparing for it all her life: “All my life I imagined dire situations in which I would be obliged to manage on my own to find food and clothing. I had made Marguerite teach me how to iron the clothes at Hautefontaine.” Though we’ve learned to sympathize with Lucy earlier in the book, her courage and energy really make a positive impression here.

One other thing to note: sex as a perversion seems to run rampant through the book. On the first pages, the captain of The Diana fantasizes about usurping baby Séraphine’s place at Lucy Dillon’s breast. The eleven-year-old Lucy gets groped by a royal page. Her great-great uncle, a priest, has dalliances with serving maids in closets. Miss B., Lucy’s English governess, likes reading suggestive novels and even goes into Lucy’s bed to “practice.” The only loving, consensual relationship is Lucy and Frédéric’s, which is described in surprisingly brief terms. The eighteenth century would certainly seem to demand excesses of this sort, but in terms of Lucy and Frédéric, certainly, it is no lustful romance novel.

I enjoyed the book overall, though the subtitle seems to have been conjured up from the ether.

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