A Q&A with author Catherine Delors, author of Mistress of the Revolution
This is your first novel. Why did you write it in your second language?
Oh, it is very simple: I was living in Los Angeles, and my first readers did not speak French. I was very insecure about my own writing skills, in any language. It took me a while to muster the courage to even mention the novel to my French friends. When I did, it was too late. I was already well into writing it in English.
What they say about the French is true: they can be hypercritical. But once they support you, they do so wholeheartedly. My friends believed in me, believed in the novel, sometimes more than I did myself. Their enthusiasm and encouragements carried me through all the self-doubt that accompanies any creative process, and the birth of this novel in particular.
I was educated in France, where the Revolution is part of the modern history curriculum in high school. It all seemed a confusing mess of events and people, with violence erupting out of nowhere. I had studied the Revolution, and yet I had learned nothing about it.
My interest was sparked many years later by a casual conversation with my father about the name of a street in the little mountain town where I had spent all of my summers as a child. It was named, my father told me, after Pierre-André Coffinhal, Vice President of the Revolutionary Tribunal. I knew nothing of that character, though the street itself had always been familiar to me.
So I began to look into Coffinhal's short and eventful life. I found a very strong man, though one most people had hated. A perfect character for a novel, in fact. That immediately piqued my curiosity, about him, and about the whole French Revolution.
I discovered a fascinating subject. When I read transcripts of debates in representative assemblies or political clubs, I found the rhetoric outdated, but the issues were entirely current. Many questions that had been debated during the American Revolution a few years earlier were raised again, sometimes in a radical fashion.
How does Revolutionary France relate to today's politics and pop culture?
Well, I think Marie-Antoinette, two hundred years after her death, is still a pop culture icon, both in this country and in France. "Let them eat cake" is still all over the internet, though she most likely never said anything of the kind
Of course, Sofia Coppola can take some credit for the enduring power of the Queen's image, positive and negative. Her "Marie Antoinette" has received mixed reviews since its release, but the fact that the film's merits are still debated shows that it made a strong and lasting impression on the public.
Now as for politics, the issues raised during the Revolution are indeed current. For instance, some of the most passionate discussions of the time revolved around the wisdom of declaring war on a foreign nation to spread the ideals of democracy.
Robespierre, the great Jacobin leader, strongly advised against it. "No one likes armed missionaries," he said in a famous speech in 1792. He was right, of course, but his advice went unheeded by the Neocons of the time. That war lasted for 23 years. It led to the erosion of civil rights, to Bonaparte's dictatorship and eventually to the loss of France's status as a global superpower.
Your novel uniquely explores the positive relationship Darby developed with her stepchildren and how their father's divorce affected them. Why did you decide to address the issue of step-parenthood and make it a key part of the storyline?
Oddly enough, it didn't start out that way. In the concept stage, the children were a plot device—a way to add more challenge to Darby's life, and solve a particular scenario. In writing her character and the story, the children became more and more central to Darby's story, I think it sort of snuck up on her (and me) much in the way stepchildren do in real life. Many women think of stepchildren as a lovely part of a package deal that comes with their future husband, but anyone who lives with children knows that they are (or will become) the center of the family. After a few dozen rounds of science projects and chicken pox and necklaces made out of macaroni, a step-mom wakes up one day and realizes that the children have cemented themselves to her heart—and in those moments when she's holding the barf bucket at 2 am, or digging through the junk drawer for the makings of a pirate costume for tomorrow morning—a step-mom feels like a real mom.
I also loved the idea of plopping this fabulous single girl Darby right into the middle of suburbia, the kind of place where mothering is a competitive sport, with no preparation and a husband who carries her over the threshold, hands her the keys to the minivan and then takes off for two weeks on a business trip.
The introduction to Chapter One of Mistress of the Revolution
LONDON, THE 25th OF JANUARY 1815
I read this morning in the papers that the corpses of the last King and Queen of France, by order of their brother, the restored Louis the Eighteenth, were exhumed from their graves in the former graveyard of La Madeleine, which has since become a private garden. The remains were removed with royal honours to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for twelve centuries.
Queen Marie-Antoinette was found soon after the workmen began digging, and the remains of King Louis the Sixteenth were located the next day. A search for the bones of the King's youngest sister, Madame Elisabeth, was also conducted at the cemetery of Les Errancis. The guillotine had filled La Madeleine by the spring of 1794, and the authorities had opened the new graveyard to accommodate its increasing output. That second investigation was unsuccessful. While the King and Queen had each been granted an individual execution and a coffin, Madame Elisabeth had been guillotined towards the end of the Terror as one in a cart of twenty-five prisoners. The remains had been thrown together into a common grave. The bodies, as required by law, had been stripped of all clothing, which, along with their other property, was forfeited to the Nation upon the imposition of the death sentence. Any identification would have become impossible soon after the burial. Nevertheless, I trust that God will overlook the lack of proper funeral rites, which were denied to many in those days.
Other victims of the guillotine, some of whom I knew and loved, also remain buried at La Madeleine and Les Errancis, royalists and revolutionaries alike, commingled for all eternity in their unmarked graves.
These tidings from Paris have affected my spirits today. I never cry anymore, yet feel tears choking me. I know that I must not allow myself this indulgence, for it is far easier to keep from crying than to quit. Nevertheless, over twenty years have passed since the great Revolution, and it is time for me at last to exhume my own dead and attempt to revive them, however feebly, under my pen.
Some of the events related here are now known only to me, and possibly my daughter. I am not aware of the extent of her recollection because, out of shyness or shame, or a desire not to acknowledge to each other the shared sorrows of the past, we have never talked about those things since our arrival to England in 1794. She was a child then, and may not have understood or remembered much of what she saw or heard. It causes me pain to recall those events, and still more to write about them, but secrecy has been a heavy burden.