Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Interview with L.C. Tyler

After two years of masking and social distancing while obsessively charting surges and death rates, encountering L. C. Tyler’s The Plague Road evokes an eerie sense of familiarity. The coincidence is not what it seems: this is the third novel in a series set in seventeenth-century England featuring one John Grey; and the series first appeared several years ago, before COVID was anywhere on the horizon. But Felony and Mayhem has decided to republish the books in the United States, and The Plague Road released earlier this week. I didn’t think about the parallels when I first heard about it; I was more struck by the somewhat unusual attention to the Stuart era. Nor do I want to misrepresent the series, the strength of which is the characters of John Grey and his childhood friend, Lady Aminta Pole. Read on to find out more.

The Plague Road is the third book of seven already published in the UK. Why did you pick Restoration England for the backdrop to this series?

At the time I decided to start the series (it was some years ago now), nobody much seemed to be writing crime novels set in the seventeenth century. I thought I might have spotted a gap in the market. Things have truly moved on. Though still not quite as crowded with fictional detectives as the Tudor period, both the English Republic and the Restoration are now receiving a lot of attention. Which, I suppose, they deserve. Particularly during the last days of Oliver Cromwell and the early years of Charles II, it was a great time for plotting and counter-plotting, with the Sealed Knot, the Action Party, the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists, and many other subversive groups all very active and full of double agents. The Restoration also launched a period of loose morals, flamboyant clothing, political dishonesty, unnecessary wars, and unconcealed greed. All bang up to date, and more than enough to frame the plots for several series …

This book was originally published in 2016, so any echoes of the current pandemic are pure coincidence. But is there anything you’d like to say about that element of the story?

Yes, I clearly had not foreseen COVID when writing The Plague Road, though pandemics occur regularly and it should have occurred to me that we might see another major one in my lifetime. The plague was, of course, much more frightening than COVID because, if you caught it, the death rate was so very much higher and, though plenty of people sold guaranteed remedies for the plague, none of them worked. The medical infrastructure we rely on now was nonexistent. The doctors largely fled London when the Plague struck. Plague victims might be cared for at home (if any of your family were still alive) or in a “pest house,” such as the one at Tothill Fields that John Grey visits in the book. Pest houses were fairly grim places and very overcrowded. The way I describe the physician having to walk across the beds to get to patients, because there was no room to walk between the beds, is based on contemporary descriptions. On the other hand, unlike COVID, the Plague does seem to have been relatively easy to avoid if you were rich enough and weren’t obliged to live in close proximity to Plague victims. The royal court, like the doctors, simply left London. Samuel Pepys sent his wife to the country but remained at his desk, and although he had several frights such as his hackney coach driver collapsing halfway through a journey (Pepys ran off as fast as he could), he survived to tell the tale. I mean literally, in this case. The Diaries are always worth reading.

More generally, what is John Grey’s London like in 1665?

It was very different from what it would be a couple of years later, since most of the houses, churches, and civic buildings would be swept away by the Great Fire in 1666. 1665 was therefore the last year of the ancient medieval city—half-timbered houses, narrow lanes filled with rubbish of all types, all dominated by the massive nave and stumpy tower of Old St Paul’s. It would have been crowded, smelly, and noisy—side by side with the many elegant gardens and the Palace of Whitehall, there were plenty of workshops, slaughterhouses, and tanneries. London at that time possessed only one bridge—London Bridge—which had been rebuilt and patched up many times. The bridge was one of the great sights of the city and was noted for two things. First, there were rows of houses, up to seven storeys high, built on it. They encroached on the road and made the crossing a dreadful bottleneck for travelers. Second, the arches of the bridge were also very narrow and dammed back the Thames, so that at each tide water rushed through them at high speed. “Shooting the arches” in a small boat was something that you could do if you were young and drunk enough and wanted to impress the girl you were with. London Bridge was proverbially “for wise men to pass over, and fools to pass under.” If you were still alive on the far side of your chosen arch, you could celebrate by visiting one of the new restaurants (“ordinaries”) or one of the coffee houses that were just coming into fashion. The theaters had recently reopened after the ban on acting during Cromwell’s time, and for the first time ever actresses were permitted on stage. So London was crowded, smelly, and dangerous, but you could have fun.

And John Grey as a character? What can you tell us about him, as your window on the novels?

In the first book in the series (A Cruel Necessity) John Grey has just finished his studies at Cambridge University and is about to begin training as a lawyer in London, though he finds himself being dragged, partly by circumstances and partly by inclination, into the world of espionage. He is bright and personable, but still somewhat naive and a bit too trusting. The Plague Road begins some seven years later, during which time he has both become a fairly successful lawyer and has worked as a spy, first for Cromwell and then for Charles II. During those seven years he’s had to learn a lot of things and does actually have the scars to show for it. I wish I could tell you exactly what he did between books 2 and 3, but I made the decision to jump forward from Cromwell’s death to the Plague Year, and I will probably now never know what he got up to, though every now and then Grey drops hints that he was in Brussels or the West Country on a particular date. Anyway, by 1665 he has become one of spymaster Lord Arlington’s most trusted men and capable of fighting (Arlington once blackmailed a fencing master into giving Grey lessons) or of talking his way out of most things. His personal life is, however, a complete mess, as is obligatory these days for all fictional detectives—see below.

And what is Grey’s central problem in this novel?

1. That he did not marry the woman that, clearly, he was meant to marry. 2. That somebody has tried to dispose of a body in a plague pit, even though the knife sticking out of the corpse’s back suggests death by some cause other than the Plague. 3. That his boss, Lord Arlington, only ever gives him half the information that he needs.

We learn early on that the victim, Charles Fincham, is both actor and spy, which is an interesting combination. Was that common at the time?

Spies—both men and women—came from every possible walk of life. They were recruited wherever and however the government could do it. Some were professional. Some were amateurs. Some had served as soldiers during the Civil War and failed to find any other way of living during peacetime. Some accepted employment as a spy as an alternative to being hanged for some minor (or major) offense. Some spied out of conviction for a cause. Most did it to a greater or lesser extent for the money. Actors and writers do seem to have featured quite prominently, being good at impersonation and at coming up with plausible stories. The playwright Aphra Behn is one of the better known examples. She undertook at least one mission to Bruges for the government in the 1660s, for which she was probably never paid, and may have done other work for Arlington and his assistant Williamson in the following decade—like John Grey, Behn has a gap in her life history when we know little about her.

Is the plan to publish all seven John Grey novels in the US? And what are you writing now?

I suspect that whether all of the John Grey books are published in the US will depend very much on how many people buy them. (Yes, dear reader, that is a hint.) I’ve just finished writing John Grey #8, which is set in the world of the Restoration theater and the immoral and licentious court of Charles II. Prepare to be mildly shocked.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Excellent questions! Thank you for asking them!

L.C. Tyler is the award-winning author of the Ethelred Tressider and John Grey series, as well as the standalone novel A Very Persistent Illusion. Find out more about him and his books at

Panorama of London (1647), focused on London Bridge, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 22, 2022

On the High Seas

I’ve always considered Death on the Nile—currently a blockbuster movie, following on the recent success of Murder on the Orient Express—one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels. Both stories are versions of the closed-room mystery, where the number of suspects is constrained by circumstances (a boat on the river, a train trapped in a blizzard) and tension rises as it becomes increasingly clear that anyone may be guilty and the innocent cannot escape from the killer.

As Erica Ruth Neubauer notes in my latest New Books interview, all three of her Jane Wunderley novels use this format to a degree, but none more so than Death on the Atlantic, where Jane and her love interest, Redvers, embark on a trans-Atlantic cruise. Their task is to unmask a spy, who may be either passenger or crew, but Jane soon becomes involved in helping a fellow passenger who is being, in modern parlance, “gaslighted” into believing that her missing husband never existed. Jane knows that’s not true—she saw them together—but given the fellow passenger’s reputation for elaborate pranks, what actually happened remains far from clear. What does soon become clear to Jane, though, is that even on a large boat, making enemies on a ship when there’s a killer aboard and no way off except over the side into the freezing ocean is not good for one’s health.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


From the years leading up to and into the French Revolution, we move forward in time to 1926. Jane Wunderly, who left her home in the United States earlier in the year on a journey that took her first to Cairo, then to the English countryside, is heading back home in the company of Redvers, the enigmatic businessman she first met in Egypt. In fact, she is posing as Redvers’ wife—or should we say, he is posing as her husband, because they go by the name of Mr. and Mrs Wunderly—even though Jane has decidedly ambivalent views of matrimony, the result of bad experiences in her past.

Despite her doubts, Jane enjoys being included in Redvers’ current mission: to identify a  spy reported to be traveling on the Olympic, the magnificent sister ship of the Titanic. The settings are luxurious, the gig comes with magnificent clothes supplied by Redvers’ employer, and the biggest threat to Jane’s peace at first appears to be Miss Eloise Baumann, a loudmouthed New Yorker who dominates every conversation. But the ship has barely left port when Jane encounters an heiress who claims to have lost her husband—on board the Olympic, in the middle of the Atlantic. No one else wants to help, and even Redvers tells Jane to keep out of it and concentrate on the spy. But Jane is determined to solve both mysteries, and soon she has to wonder whether every trip to the deck will end with someone pitching her overboard

Erica Ruth Neubauer mixes a gift for creating complex and engaging mysteries with a delightful sense of humor. To avoid spoilers, I recommend starting with Murder at the Mena House and reading forward, but all three of these novels are well worth your time.

Painting of the HMS Olympic by Arthur Lismer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Interview with Jody Hadlock

It was tough for women in nineteenth-century America—and, indeed, throughout most of history. A woman who gave into a man, even a man who promised to marry her, and ended up pregnant soon discovered that all the burden and the shame fell on her. He could, if he chose, denounce her as loose and walk away scot-free.

Such is the situation that Annie—the heroine of Jody Hadlock’s debut novel, The Lives of Diamond Bessie—finds herself in. When we first meet her, she has been renamed Elisabeth and confined to a convent near Buffalo, NY. She soon gives birth to a daughter, whom the nuns wrest from her arms before she has a chance to protest, and when she escapes, intending to make enough money to reclaim her baby, she discovers that only the “world’s oldest profession” will allow her to support herself. The child’s father denies all responsibility. Adapting her convent name, Annie establishes a new life for herself as Bessie. But before long, she learns that her daughter has died.

After a long period of mourning, Bessie leaves New York for Chicago, where she enters a high-class brothel. She’s doing very well for herself when a chance encounter with a handsome grifter sends her off on a different trajectory.

It would be unfair to go farther into the plot than this. Suffice it to say that Bessie’s complex story is well told, even riveting. At times I wanted to shake her for her willful pursuit of a love that seemed too good to be true, but her goals were crystal clear, and I never stopped pulling for her to attain them.

The Lives of Diamond Bessie is your first novel. What made you decide to write fiction?

I’d always wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write until I learned about Bessie’s story. I also love history, going back as far as junior high when I was a member of the Junior Historians of Texas, and I read a lot of historical fiction, so it’s no surprise, to me that my first novel is historical.

And what drew you to this particular story?

I learned of Diamond Bessie during a visit to Jefferson, Texas, which is three hours east of Dallas. I’d never heard of Jefferson, even though I grew up in a Dallas suburb. I was amazed to learn that it was a booming inland riverport in the mid-1800s. At Jefferson’s historical museum there was a full-page newspaper article about Bessie and Abe Rothschild on display. It was published in a Dallas newspaper in the 1930s. I thought, “Why in the world was this paper interested in something that happened nearly sixty years earlier in a tiny town a few hours away?” And I had another thought, but I don’t want to give away the plot for those not familiar with the story. I was immediately hooked and knew I had found what I wanted to write.

When we first meet Bessie, whose birth name is Annie, she’s living in Buffalo, New York, with a group of nuns who call her Elisabeth. Explain, please, what she’s doing there and what her life with the nuns is like.

In the nineteenth, and for some of the twentieth, century, if you were a young woman and had sex outside of marriage or were even just considered “at risk” of doing so—or God forbid, you got pregnant out of wedlock—you were often sent to a place for “fallen” or “wayward” women. One of these was the Sisters of Good Shepherd, founded by nuns in France and brought to the United States in the mid-1800s.

I found a few memoirs written by women who had lived in these convents, which informed the first few chapters of my novel. Young women, and even young girls, who were sent to these places were told they were starting new lives. They were given new names and were forbidden from talking about their pasts, including their families. They were supposed to have a fresh start. Unfortunately, there are many accounts of abuse in these places, which had incredibly strict rules.

Not much is known about Bessie leading up to when she became a prostitute, so the first part of my novel is more fictional than fact. My main character was known as Bessie in real life as a prostitute. Most demi-mondaines used a stage name. For her fictional time at the convent, I decided on the name Elisabeth, one of the patron saints of pregnancy, and I used the French spelling of the name because the convent in Buffalo was founded by French nuns. Bessie is also a nickname for Elizabeth.

Bessie escapes early on, intending to return home but ending up in Watertown, New York. What is her situation at this point, and how does it determine her future path in life?   

Bessie knew she couldn’t return home to Canton in far upstate New York and she also couldn’t stay in Buffalo because, if found, she would have been taken back to the convent. In real life, Bessie ended up in Watertown. I portray her as arriving with nothing, not knowing anyone, and how the societal constraints at the time affected the choices she ends up making.

After a while, Bessie leaves New York for Chicago, where she eventually runs into Abe Rothschild. Tell us about him.

Abe, the antagonist of the story, was a real person—and a cad. He was the eldest son of a wealthy businessman in Cincinnati and worked as a traveling salesman, known as a “drummer” back then because they drummed up business. Unfortunately, Abe liked gambling more than work. Bessie had to have seen some good in him in the beginning, so I had to write him as three-dimensional, so to speak, and not just as being a horrible person. It was difficult because I don’t like him!

Without giving away spoilers, can you hint at why your title is The Lives of Diamond Bessie, not The Life of Diamond Bessie? And why did you decide to add this supernatural dimension to your book?

The title came from a fellow writer at the Aspen Words summer conference. There were six of us in one of the workshops, critiquing each other’s full manuscripts. The title of my novel at the time was Land of Lost Souls, which I liked. The workshop leader, the late Vanity Fair and Simon & Schuster editor George Hodgman, suggested that it be just Diamond Bessie. That’s when a fellow writer suggested The Lives of Diamond Bessie because of the way the story is structured. As soon as he said it, I knew it was the perfect title. And luckily my publisher agreed!

My novel has a supernatural element because I wanted the story to continue after the “big event.” I didn’t want it to end on that tragic note and because so much happens afterwards. I decided this was the best way to tell the whole story.

This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?

Yes, it’s a story I learned of while researching Diamond Bessie. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be set in the United States and Russia from the late 1850s to the 1880s and will probably feature two women as the main characters. I was planning to visit Russia next year (in 2023), but with the situation in Ukraine now, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it there. If needed, hopefully I’ll be able to finish my research remotely. I also have another idea for a novel, which would also be set in the 1800s, but it’s very much in the embryonic stage.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you for including me!

After studying journalism at Texas A&M University, Jody Hadlock was a television news reporter and anchor in Bryan-College Station, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas. The Lives of Diamond Bessie is her first novel. Find out more about her and her writing at She can also be found on Instagram at

Map of Jefferson, Texas, in 1872 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Interview with C.S. Harris

Fans of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, will know that the individual tales that form his saga combine complex, fast-paced, often political mysteries with a series of revelations about his family’s history that it would be churlish to reveal in a post like this. All this takes place against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in Regency-era London with its vast social gap between the aristocratic rich and the starving, crime-ridden poor.

In When Blood Lies, the seventeenth installment, Sebastian’s encounter with his own past is particularly poignant. With Napoleon incarcerated on Elba and Europe at peace, Sebastian sees the perfect opportunity to seek out his long-lost mother (this information is itself a bit of a spoiler, but it’s included in the book’s short description), Sophia. So he travels to Paris in the hope of engineering a reconciliation with her or at least obtaining answers to his questions. He has no sooner established her whereabouts, however, than he stumbles over her body on the river bank near the Pont Neuf. She manages to say his name, proving that she recognizes him, then loses consciousness.

Sebastian has Sophia carried back to the home where he’s staying with his wife and children, only to watch his mother die before she can say anything more. In the interim, he discovers that she was murdered. He urges the local police force to find her killer, but with the Bourbons in charge of Paris, the police have little interest in tracking down the murderer of someone they consider a loose woman—and one associated with Napoleon, to boot. So Sebastian and his wife are on their own, determined to solve a murder that the local authorities refuse to acknowledge in a foreign city rife with political tension and rumors of Napoleon’s imminent return.

For reasons outside my control, I ended up reading this series out of order, which I do not recommend. Each book builds on the one before, and you will enjoy them most if you start with What Angels Fear and go from there. But even out of order, this is a remarkable story, not just engaging but engrossing, not to say impossible to put down. The murders themselves tend toward the gruesome (When Blood Lies is an exception in that regard), but you can skip over those parts and focus on the mystery or, if all else fails, Sebastian’s complex and constantly evolving interactions with the members of his immediate family.

Read on to learn more about the series and its main characters from the author herself.

This is Sebastian’s seventeenth adventure, although only four years have passed since we first met him in What Angels Fear. Before we get to him and what we can safely reveal about this story, where does the inspiration for the whole saga come from?

Because my PhD is in 18th- and 19th-century European history, I knew I wanted to set my mystery series in that period. My particular area of expertise—France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras—struck me as just too depressing. So I thought, why not move across the Channel to Regency England? With Sebastian, I can explore the era’s social tensions, intellectual and creative developments, and political and military developments, but in a setting that isn’t as brutal or emotionally wrenching as, say, Paris in 1793. As for Sebastian’s personal saga, that just came to me over time as I lived with him, his family, and his friends in my head for a few years.

Sebastian himself is the central figure. Talk a little bit, please, about his somewhat unusual abilities and why you decided to assign them to your hero.

When Sebastian was still just an idea in my head, my daughter was a freshman biology student and volunteered to take an extensive DNA test for extra credit. They told her she had something called “Bithil Syndrome” (this came over the phone from an excited seventeen-year-old, so I could have the spelling wrong). It’s characterized by extremely keen hearing and eyesight, the ability to see well in the dark, and quick reflexes—all characteristics I’d noticed in her from the time she was little. So naturally I thought, What a cool syndrome to give a hero. I’ve been accused of making it up, but I didn’t; most people don’t realize there are thousands of rare syndromes that don’t come up in Google. (That daughter, BTW, is now a flight surgeon in the USAF.)

And what can you tell us about Sebastian himself? He’s been through some tumultuous times since that first novel.

When the series begins in early 1811, Sebastian is very damaged by the things he has seen and done in the war. For Sebastian, bringing justice to the victims of murder becomes a path to atonement. But at the same time as he is struggling to come to terms with his past, he must also deal with a series of truly shocking revelations about his mother, the man he thought was his father, and the woman he has long loved. So over the last four years of his life, he’s done a lot of growing and changing. It’s one of the things that helps keep it interesting for me as a writer and—I hope—for my readers.

Anyone who reads the book blurb for When Blood Lies will know that Sebastian is married by now. His wife, the former Hero Jarvis, is an interesting character in her own right. Tell us a bit about her background and her personality.

I really love Hero. I suspect in many ways she’s the woman I would like to be. She’s very tall (I’m really short) and has an enviable, unflappable sense of who she is. Her father, Jarvis, is Sebastian’s nemesis, so she sometimes finds herself caught between two people she loves. And she has more than a touch of her father’s ruthlessness in her, too, although she combines it with a sense of social responsibility and empathy he utterly lacks.

And what brings Hero and Sebastian to Paris in March 1815?

When the series begins, Sebastian thinks his mother is dead, that she was lost in a boating accident when he was 11. But by 1815 he knows the truth—that she ran off with a lover. Since that discovery he’s been looking for her, to ask her for the answers to some very important questions. Now that the war is over (or so everyone thinks) and their son is old enough to comfortably make the journey, he and Hero join the hordes of British aristocrats who at that time were flocking to Paris—which is where Sebastian has learned she’s now living with her lover, one of Napoleon’s generals.

The background to the whole series has been the Napoleonic Wars. At the beginning of this novel, Napoleon is in exile on Elba, but it’s not a spoiler to say he doesn’t stay there. How does his escape affect the atmosphere in Paris and your characters’ lives at this particular moment?

This aspect of When Blood Lies was intriguing to write. At first there are rumors that Napoleon is planning a return, but almost everyone expects him to fail spectacularly if he tries (these reactions are all historically accurate and taken from the letters, diplomatic dispatches, newspapers, and memoirs of the time). Then, once news of his escape reaches Paris, everyone still thinks it’s basically a joke, that he’ll quickly be stopped. They keep thinking this for days. So as Sebastian is frantically trying to figure out who killed his mother and why, Napoleon keeps getting closer and closer (remember, news traveled slow in those days), until people start to panic and everyone from the British ambassador’s wife (the Duchess of Wellington) to the recently restored Bourbon king frantically try to flee Paris. It’s human nature when the “unthinkable” starts to happen—whether it’s a pandemic spreading rapidly around the world or a sociopath making moves to take over a modern democracy—there is this tendency for people to think, “Oh, it can’t happen.” Except that it can and frequently does.

This novel just came out, but as we know, publishing takes a while. What are you working on now, and will there be an eighteenth Sebastian St. Cyr mystery?

I’m currently finishing writing the eighteenth Sebastian St. Cyr. I should have been done by now, but my house in New Orleans was wrecked by Hurricane Ida and I’ve spent the last six months repairing it, traveling back and forth between Louisiana and Texas, and moving into a new house in San Antonio. But the book will still be out in 2023, so no worries!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Candice Proctor, aka C.S. Harris and C.S. Graham, is the USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of more than two dozen novels, including the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series written under the name C.S. Harris, the C.S. Graham thriller series co-written with Steven Harris, and seven historical romances. She is also the author of a nonfiction historical study of women in the French Revolution. Find out more about her and her writing at

Images: Joseph Beaume, Napoleon Leaving Elba (1836); Fashion Plate, La Belle Assemblée (1814); Charles de Steuben, Napoleon’s Return from Elba (1818), all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Long Live the King?

The French Revolution is not at present quite the publishing powerhouse it has sometimes been, but it still draws a good deal of attention. It’s such a dramatic setting, so it’s no wonder that many novelists succumb to the lure. I myself set The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel there—or at least in a virtual version of there—before turning my focus to sixteenth-century Russia and the steppe.

Eva Stachniak’s The School of Mirrors ends with the Terror, but it opens in Paris a good forty years before the forces of reform become radicalized, in the wildly extravagant court of Louis XV (r. 1715–1774). The king, approaching forty, has an official mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who no longer wants a physical relationship. She does, however, want to ensure that no one who replaces her in the king’s bed can threaten her position as the main power behind the throne. So she endorses a scheme to lure innocent girls, no older than thirteen or fourteen, out of poverty and into a school that will train them to sate the king’s appetites

As Eva Stachniak explains during our New Books Network interview, her heroine Véronique has a real antecedent, although this story is fiction. And as in real life, the heroine’s brief relationship with the king has consequences that both spool out into history and reveal the callousness and excess that lit the flames of revolution.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

France in 1755 is a country of extremes. The streets of Paris are filled with the poor and downtrodden, whereas just a few miles away lies the Palace of Versailles, with its renowned Hall of Mirrors where courtiers under the eye of Louis XV while away the hours amid endless extravagance. Once known as Louis the Beloved, the king has steadily lost ground with his people, and even his long-term relationship with Madame de Pompadour has entered a new phase. To retain her power and appeal to the king’s changing appetites, Madame enlists the help of Dominic-Guillaume Lebel, Louis’s valet de chambre. He sets up a school in Deer Park (Parc-aux-Cerfs), near the palace, where carefully selected thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls from poor families can master basic literacy, painting, music, dance, embroidery, manners, and court protocol. Those who succeed in pleasing the king leave with a dowry and an income for life. Even those who fail receive some kind of financial settlement.

Véronique Roux, a printer’s daughter fallen on hard times, enters the school and does well—until a chance remark leads to her hasty dismissal. Years later, a little girl named Marie-Louise—who, as we know from the book jacket, is Véronique’s daughter, sired by the king and wrenched from her mother at birth—is summoned to Versailles and turned over to two of Madame de Pompadour’s servants for her education. Marie-Louise wants nothing more than to find the parents who abandoned her, without knowing who they are, and through her story we see the connections of Louis XV’s failures as a ruler and how they lead to the French Revolution in 1789.

Eva Stachniak takes the element of the real-life school at Deer Park and builds it, through the fictional characters of Véronique and Marie-Louise, into a powerful indictment of both a monarchy in decline and the radicals who sought to overthrow it at all costs, even when their initial idealism caused them to turn against one another.

Images: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XV (1730); François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour (1756); and Jean-Pierre Houël, The Storming of the Bastille (1789), all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.