Marguerite (Book I in The Merencourt Saga) by Carol Edgerley
A 19th century quest for personal autonomy
When I first came upon Carol Edgerley’s Marguerite, I wondered about the historical romance element; this genre generally is not my cup of tea. However, when I learned the novel is based upon events in the life of the author’s great grandmother, my interest was further piqued and I decided to give it a go. Having now finished the book I can say my faith was well-placed as Marguerite is an engaging read whose protagonist is someone a good many of us can relate to.
Born into 19th century French nobility, Marguerite de Merencourt suffers the fallout from her embittered mother’s hatred, the roots of which are secreted in the Marquise’s unwanted arranged marriage to a man she despises. Unable and unwilling to differentiate between her husband and the newborn who is the image of her father, Francine sends the baby away and hurls a bottle of perfume into a mirror, watching in self pity as her image falls in pieces to the floor.
Marguerite’s baby- and childhood does little to soften her mother’s stance and when she captures her attention, it usually is of the negative variety. The Marquise, who refused even to name her child, dotes on her boys, particularly the ingratiating Jérome. It is he who emerges as partner in his mother’s disturbing behavior towards Minette, as she is affectionately known to those who care for her, and the pair engage in childish duplicity designed to ensnare the girl at every turn.
As events occurred my horrified awe at this woman’s conduct gave way to disbelief. While I am aware a great many women were forced into marriages against their will and dislike or even hatred of their husbands kept hidden for years, even lifetimes, the transference of such to an innocent child, and with such unmitigated force, unsettled me. Could a mother of sound mind actually hate her own child simply for being the product of an unwanted marriage? Some women dislike or are uninterested in children, but Francine had others she adored, and only Minette felt the force of her mother’s acrimony.
I vacillated between the horror of such loathing and the concept that here perhaps was a shameful secret inhabitants of the 19th century managed to keep buried in obscure or esoteric records and journals, and that it was something more common than I had imagined. If that were the case and Francine simply loathes her daughter for being her husband’s offspring, failing to account for parts of herself in the girl, perhaps she was not of as sound mind as once presumed? Or could it be she fully sees her own image in Minette, hating it as much as she hates herself? But why, interjects a new train of thought, does she love her other children so much? Is it because Minette is a girl? The probing carries on, and in such a magnified way reflects its impact on Minette herself, who remains steadfastly optimistic and forward-looking, perhaps a strength learned as part of her elite upbringing and the behavioral expectations associated with it.
As the years go by and Minette approaches marriageable age, a husband is chosen for her, mostly by her mother’s doing, knowing how her vivacious daughter will react to the thought of being wed to a man many years her senior, and of such distasteful proportion and manner. Minette reacts strongly to her father’s announcement.
Is this a joke, Papa? The man I spoke to at that [b]all was old, sweaty, and bursting out of his clothes. He also made personal remarks… so embarrassing. As a matter of fact, I thought him rather peculiar.
The Marquis will not tolerate such disrespect from his daughter and wonders if her mother’s claims about the girl’s negative behavior have been correct all along. Minette’s impulsive reactions have gotten her into trouble before, though her father’s involvement typically does not include exposure to the injustices that triggered her fits of temper.
Following attempts to buy herself time and Francine’s successful upsets of her daughter’s small victories, the Marquis puts his foot down and announces his intention to
take the advice of your mother to send you away to the Sacred Heart Convent in Ireland…You will spend the next two years there, learning how a young lady of standing should conduct herself in a proper manner.
So commences the immediate series of events that lead to Minette’s introduction to a more suitable, in her eyes, marriage partner and their eventual elopement before her two-year sentence reaches its conclusion.
Edgerley’s layout of timing in Marguerite is noteworthy: Looking back I saw that seventeen years are covered in roughly the first third of the book. From the time Minette is born to when she runs away from Ireland is, comparatively, a small portion of the novel, yet its impact so large. So many events occur in that space of time, with such detail imparted and such strong reader response, one marvels at what may be ahead. From the book’s blurb readers are aware of time spent in British India and hardships ahead for Minette, and because Edgerley’s prose is descriptive and engaging, it becomes difficult to put the book down. While there is a rather sudden fit of references to Minette as “the French girl”—notable here by its too-frequent repetition—it ceases almost as suddenly as it began (partly owing to it no longer being appropriate), and though somewhat distracting, the story is too enchanting to leave off.
Escaping her mother’s influence proves to be a new beginning of Minette’s challenges in life, and readers journey with her as she courageously determines to release her captive spirit, only to find along the way she simply moves from one societal confine to the next. Here, however, is perhaps the part of the book I enjoyed the most, for two elements: my own love for India is indulged as Edgerley releases vivid and evocative imagery as longed-for as the frangipani scent that welcomes Minette to her new home in Lucknow. I also appreciated Minette as a strong woman in a time of severe social bigotry, even more so because her story is so personal. While Minette has flaws like anyone else, her individual biases are not what I might refer to as extraneous: She recognizes the power of men over her and all other women, but declines to adopt an institutionalized hatred or reverse bias against men in general.
Through Edgerley’s telling, readers are presented the opportunity to grow with a historical figure; as she experiences one event after another, we learn more about the ordinary of her time (ordinary is something that tends to fascinate me), historical events and eras and insight into how people of a variety of backgrounds and social classes experienced life in the 19th century and the costs associated with personal autonomy, when such was achievable at all. Marguerite is an honest and at-times gritty account that for me was often very personal, and one that readers are likely to bond with and hold close.
Carol Edgerley is also the author of Claire, (Book II of The Merencourt Saga). Forthcoming is Susanna, third book in the series. You can read more about Edgerley at her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.
This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternate location.
A copy of Marguerite was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.