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Gloating over Books, Mrs Pimpernel Atkyns, and the fine Art of Conversation
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I spend a lot of the time panicking because I'm about to run out of books to read (the curse of reading quickly without being rich), so today was a wonderful exception. I woke up this morning to the arrival of an Amazon package of books I wasn't expecting until later this week: Delia Sherman's Changeling and Erica Jong's Seducing the Demon: Writing for my Life. When you add to this the fact that I'm still only 100 pages into a really fascinating fat history book (Lucy Moore's Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France)...well, my cup runneth over. I ate breakfast with all three books sitting on the table beside me so that I could properly gloat over my hoard. Now the only dilemma is how to read them All At Once (which is of course my natural first choice)...

I've been reading a lot of history books about the French revolution lately, for no reason except that I've never known all that much about the revolution, and I'm curious about it. It's an odd feeling, after all these years, to be reading about history not for the sake of my PhD or even as research for a novel, but just for fun. It feels dangerous. And I really like it. Last week I read a wonderfully fun (and unabashedly biased) 1960s biography by E. E. P. Tisdall called Mrs Pimpernel Atkyns. Oh those dastardly (and stupid!) revolutionaries! Curse their fiendish evil! Oh the poor innocent king and queen! Oh those ridiculous French peasants! But oh how fun it genuinely is to read about Charlotte Atkyns, a former Drury Lane actress who put her training to good use by disguising herself as a man and traveling to Revolutionary Paris to try to rescue the queen and dauphin (who may or may not have actually been rescued...). It's all beautifully dramatic, high-spirited and mysterious, even if I don't believe more than two words in ten that Tisdale writes (and this was written in the days when biographers didn't bother to cite their sources for any statements of "fact" or even give a bibliography at the end of the book to allow people to check up on them).

As a total contrast, I'm now reading Lucy Moore's Liberty, which is equally fun and much more reliable. It's also a joy to read a history book that really tries to cover the lives of women from all classes of French society, not just the royals. Next (after my Amazon shipment, of course!) I'll probably start on Simon Schama's Citizens.

One of the things I like best about reading history of any period is that, invariably, ideas for characters bubble up inside me - especially when I'm reading about colorful times and popular philosophies that just beg for expression in fictional characters. And of course it's especially fun to read about real people who could have stepped straight out of a Jane Austen novel. For instance, Lucy Moore talks about Félicité de Genlis, a wealthy Parisian who managed to follow every political fashion and wrote ten volumes of memoirs:

A typical anecdote [in the memoirs] begins: 'One praise I may venture to give myself, because I am quite sure I deserve it...' Félicité presents herself as an unrivalled beauty (everybody else's looks are judged and found wanting), a celebrated authoress, a gifted musician, a talented rider ('I was thought to look so well on horseback'), a skilled nurse who can let blood and set wounds 'to perfection', and an expert on education. She seems unaware of her lack of...humour.

God, I want her as a character! Maybe someday...

Reading these books also reminds me of why I love writing eighteenth-century settings. Just take Germaine de Staël's definition of salon debates: "a shower of sparks" - and her definition of the art of conversation itself:
a certain way in which people act upon one another, a quick give-and-take of pleasure, a way of speaking as soon as one thinks, of rejoicing in oneself in the immediate present, of being applauded without making an effort, of displaying one's intelligence by every nuance of intonation, gesture and look - in short, the ability to produce at will a kind of electricity.

Sooooo cool. Of course, this is also why writing 18th/early-19th-century salon conversation is also such a challenge and can feel so intimidating...but what a great challenge to take on!

Now back to reading...

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