Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

27. Léonie de Saint-Vire (These Old Shades)

The Long Eighteenth Century, that gilded period during which the world as we know it was transformed irrevocably. Wordsworth wrote, of a day in 1789:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
And some few decades earlier, when our tale unfolds, Mademoiselle Léonie de Saint-Vire was indeed young, and thus well-placed to bask in the changing of the order of the Universe.

The very year in which she came to Paris, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre uncovered the ruins of Pompeii, and our ideas of Classical Rome were never the same again. And how did this momentous discovery affect young Léonie? She attempts to murder her sister-in-law "with the big carving-knife."

Seven years later the great Scottish physician and scientist, Joseph Black, discovers both carbon dioxide and magnesium, while Leonhard Euler publishes his magisterial Institutiones calculi differentialis, placing Leibniz and Newton's work on calculus onto a sound footing for the first time. Léonie's reaction? She runs away from home and says "bah". Frequently.

Of course a tavern in the Rue Sainte-Marie is hardly the best place from which to observe the world, but from the day she enters the Duke of Avon's household she has access to a fine library and the newspapers. Surely now she will take advantage of those times in which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute, are taking at once the attraction of a country in romance? Within a week of her arrival at that fine hôtel in the Rue Saint-Honoré, Lisbon is destroyed in an earthquake that kills 60,000 to 90,000 people. Yet Léonie pays no real heed, pausing merely to threaten her fellow servants with a dagger. The loss of the second Eddystone Lighthouse, an event that set all England a-buzz also passes without comment from Léonie, other than that the King looks in real life as he does on his coinage.

Perhaps the Duke's decision to transfer Mademoiselle de Saint-Vire to Avon Court was triggered as much by his growing realisation that she was failing to observe what was going on around her as it was by any consideration of babies swapped at birth or girls dressing as boys or longstanding enmities between noble families. Alas, despite her presence in London for the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, Léonie prefers to opine dismissively on the Duke's family and to say "bah" some more.

And then, when the French invade Minorca, triggering the Seven Years War, the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Last of the Mohicans, Léonie returns to Paris for her triumph. Ill-timed to say the least.

Is a slap sufficient when dealing with what starts to look like willful High Treason?

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