I thought I was old enough to have learned not to judge a book by its cover. Apparently not. I found The Countess Angelique in the laundry room library. The author is Sergeanne Golon, which I later learned is the pen name for the French writing couple Anne and Serge Golon. Apparently book six in a series, and originally published in French in 1967, the cover shows a mature buxom blonde stepping over large rocks in a forest setting, incongruously more than half out her dress. The cover blurb reads:
The dazzling mistress of rogues and royalty seeks lusty new adventures in the virgin wilderness of the new world.
The back blurb states that Angelique is a “Saucy, emerald-eyed slave of passion,” while an interior page describes her as “The Most Ravished and Ravishing Heroine of Historical Fiction!”
Sounds steamy, but the story starts slowly. Angelique is traveling through what would later be Maine and Quebec, with her children (by two fathers), her husband (after a long separation), and a large assortment of fellow settlers, explorers, and natives. There is much description of the countryside. There are French, and English, and Huguenots, and Catholics, and Spaniards, and Canadians of a sort, and Hurons, and Iroquois, and Algonquins, and Jesuits, and sailors and widows and others from exotic lands, and after a while I completely lost track of who was who, and who was wary of who. I was never sure why these folks were wandering through the woods in the first place, although everyone gets gold bars at Christmas.
They arrive at a fort, and settle, but then they have to leave, and settle at a smaller fort. This takes 250 pages. In all this time, there has been nothing remotely resembling passion, beyond a few hints of past pleasures and occasional reflections by husband and wife on how wonderful the other is. We do learn the Angelique is the best shot in the group. She also cleans all the guns, cooks most of the food, sews, preserves like mad, and heals the sick. Some locals and natives think she is the fulfillment of various prophecies, and it is true that she has an unnatural ability to hear and rescue people lost in the forest.
She seems entirely capable of life on the frontier after living at Versailles, but her abilities are presented as self-evident. I always say I like a strong female character, but a little back story about how she became so strong would be nice. Perhaps that was in the earlier books. This one is not character driven, but uses travel and then the seasons to keep things moving. Fortunately the writing is good enough to be enjoyable, if you enjoy overwrought poetry.
On the horizon small pearly-grey clouds stretched out to form a mass that melted into the summits of the Appalachians. Towards the west the mountains were gradually disappearing in a saffron haze, while the plain stretching out at her feet was growing darker, but it was a darkness steeped in light reminiscent of the fugitive glint of quicksilver; it stretched out, mile upon mile, dotted with a thousand lakes of unbearably brilliant gold. Beneath this cloth, beneath this veil spread by the approaching night, Angelique caught a glimpse of the true nature of this land, abandoned to trees and waters, everlastingly renewing itself yet sterile, and the slow panorama of the mountains as they vanished into infinity made her want to groan like a soul in pain. Not a single puff of smoke made its way slowly skywards to betray the presence of a human being somewhere in all this wilderness. It was a dead land!
A few minutes after being distracted by the random view, she finds some cheering mint in this recently dead land.
And she buried her face in her hands, breathing in the heady familiar perfume which reminded her of the thickets she had known in her childhood. She felt a kind of exultation as she reveled in the smell and sighed as she ran her sweet smelling hands over her cheeks and her brow.
The story continues slowly, as winter sets in, and the group suffers through starvation and disease. They are forced to kill the horses, and there was much rejoicing, but then they are starving again. Then some Indians, concerned about her, arrive with beans, and there was much rejoicing. When our plucky heroine isn’t saving the day, her admirers are doing it for her. One man admires too much, and flees in shame, but her husband tracks him down, blizzard notwithstanding, and punishes the stolen kiss by killing the man. That’s the most apparent expression of spousal devotion. It’s also an opportunity for father and son bonding. As for all those cold nights, there was one night of sweaty snuggles, told in the most discreet terms.
Spring comes at last, with a few hints of uncertainty in the relationship between Angelique and her husband, but that’s apparently a teaser for the next book. After 563 pages, we are done. It’s been a leisurely and scenic ramble, with many interesting characters and minor events, but nothing important seems to have happened.
There’s no shortage of historical detail concerning new world politics and the hardships of a wilderness winter in Quebec, but I suspect the earlier stories, where Angelique was the king’s mistress or in a harem, have a little more lusty adventure. I might have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t been expecting lusty adventure, but without that promise on the cover I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it.