In your debut novel MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION, your
protagonist, Gabrielle de Montserrat, is caught up in the doomed
world of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. What drew you to write
about this period of French history?
Oddly enough, I had no particular prior interest in the French Revolution,
though I knew of its importance in the formation of modern Western thought.
I had studied the Revolution in high school, of course, but I had found it
incomprehensible. All I understood was that most people, including many
in the nobility, were extremely unhappy with the Old Regime, and wanted
things to change. What I did not grasp was how the chain of events unfolded,
how an idealistic endeavor turned into a national and international conflagration.
All that changed with a casual conversation I had with my late father. We were
talking about the names of the streets in the little town of Vic, in Auvergne, where
I spent all the summers of my childhood. My father asked whether I knew
Coffinhal, after whom Coffinhal Street was named. And I answered: “Oh,
he must be a former mayor, right?” Wrong! My father told me that the man had
been the Vice President of the Revolutionary Tribunal.And in the same breath,
he mentioned the Chevalier des Huttes, who had been an officer in the regiment
of the Queen’s Bodyguards. He had died to save Marie-Antoinette and
was also from Vic. And there was the infamous revolutionary
Carrier, who was born in Yolet, a few miles away.
I was amazed: a tiny town, with three characters who played a substantial
part in the Revolution! I had heard of Carrier, of course, because of the
massacres he ordered in Nantes, but the other two, Coffinhal and the Chevalier
des Huttes, were unknown quantities. The Chevalier was by all accounts the
perfect gentleman, and I discovered that local legend had him in love with
But I was in for a surprise with Coffinhal. Many contemporaries had feared
and hated him, and Michelet, the great (and greatly flawed) 19th century h
istorian, depicts him as blindly devoted to Robespierre, ruthless and violent.
I thought Coffinhal would make a wonderful protagonist in a novel. I must say
that he has been very cooperative as a character, and even “winked” at me
during a visit to the National Archives in Paris, where I stumbled, without at
all looking for it, upon the original decree appointing him to the Revolutionary
How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
Gabrielle, my heroine, is fictional. The Montserrats were inspired by
actual people, but I didn’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I changed
all names and, hopefully, deleted any references that would have made
the actual family identifiable.
I was very fortunate with Coffinhal because, though he came from a
well-to-do family of attorneys, little is known of him personally
before and even during the Revolution.The only thing that is ascertained
about his early to mid-twenties is that he gave up the practice of medicine,
and left Auvergne, to become an attorney in Paris. Why not ascribe this
dramatic change in his life to a failed love affair with a noblewoman?
That was inspired by an incident in the life of another revolutionary,
The – fictional - relationship between Gabrielle and Coffinhal during the
Revolution, was inspired by the true Osselin affair, to which I refer in
Mistress of the Revolution. So whenever I needed to fill the blanks,
I did so based on historical fact.
And the physical appearance of Coffinhal, as reported by his contemporaries,
was indeed what I describe in the book: a sort of giant, ugly, with a booming voice.
Perhaps that was one of the things that attracted me to him. I have always had a
soft spot for ugly men.
Tell us something surprising about women in 18th century France.
For most women, pre-revolutionary France was a harsh place.
They passed from the near absolute authority of a father (or, as in
Gabrielle’s case, a guardian) to that of a husband. They were totally
at the mercy of said father, guardian or husband. Widows had a measure
of independence, though not always financial independence. That is what
I show in Gabrielle’s story.
Women, apart of course from Marie-Antoinette, or royal mistresses
during prior reigns, had very little power. The exception was within the
Church. This is what I show with the character of Gabrielle’s sister Hélène,
the Abbess of Noirvaux. Not only is Hélène an authority figure in the moral
sense of the term, but she wields a great deal of material power. As Abbess,
she manages the financial affairs of a wealthy convent, and she has the right of
high justice over its estates (which means that she supervises a court of law.)
Helene is a woman in a position of authority and power.
This reminds me of MIDDLEMARCH, to me one of the greatest novels in the
English language. George Eliot describes Dorothea as a woman stifled by the
desultory pursuits and rarefied social atmosphere of her class and time, 19th
century English gentry. Her extraordinary human qualities only elicit mild ridicule.
Eliot hints that, in another time and place, Dorothea might have become a Saint
Theresa of Avila. I believe that is true. In extremely patriarchal societies,
like 18th century France, the Church often offered women the sole opportunity
to live up to their potential.
How did growing up in France influence your writing of this book?
In so many ways! First, the fact that French is my first language obviously
facilitated my research, since most primary documents are only available
in the original language, and English translations are sometimes unreliable.
More importantly, I have strong emotional connections with Auvergne,
in particular Vic, Coffinhal’s birthplace, and Paris, the main locales of
MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION. When I write about Gabrielle
falling in love at first sight with Paris as a teenager, and remaining
in love with the city for the rest of her life, that’s purely autobiographical.
And still more importantly, the fact that I was born and raised in France
allowed me to avoid a pitfall of some English-language novels about the
Revolution: francophobia. The French Revolution is part of my heritage.
This does not mean that I am blinded to its mistakes, or to the atrocities
committed in its name. But it does mean that I recognize its achievements,
such as the abolition of slavery in 1794 and the Declaration of Rights, which
inspired the American Bill of Rights.
How did you go about researching for MISTRESS OF THE
The French Revolution is almost too easy to research. The
documents are written in quasi-modern French, very easy to read, there are no
ancient scripts to decipher, and a tremendous amount of primary materials is
available online. I listed my sources on my website.
I read scholarly works as a complement to the rest of the research. I will readily
admit that I much prefer working from source materials, such as trial transcripts,
speeches, letters of the time. Also, since MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION
is a fictional memoir,I read many real memoirs. I wanted to see for myself how people
recounted the events, howthey looked back on them, what their emotional reactions were.
That was only possible with first-hand accounts.
Thank you, Catherine! And feel free to visit
Catherine Delors online for more information
about her novel Mistress of the Revolution!