What do you get when you mix Georgian England, pre-Revolutionary France, and Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers?
You get this.
Melanie Clegg’s third novel, “Before the Storm,” based in part on Wharton’s The Buccaneers, tells the story of four young Englishwomen who, unable to find suitable husbands at home, make the journey to France to try their chances among the eligible gentlemen of the French nobility. Virginia and Nan St. George are replaced by Eliza and Clementine Garland, the daughters of a wealthy merchant whose mother would see them married to nobility. Connie Closson is Venetia Wrotham, a lord’s daughter who brashly pulls whatever stops she can to land the French comte of her dreams. Lizzy Elmsworth is seen in Phoebe Knowles, who herself is from a family of rank and money, yet who is determined to follow Venetia’s footsteps. And to round them all out is the governess whom the Garlands have hired to polish their younger daughter’s manners, Miss Sidonie Roche, who, much like Laura Testvalley, suggests that the girls take their search for husbands of rank across the English Channel.
Clegg successfully brings the 19th-century business of marriage – the joining of a titled young man whose family is in need of some serious cash and an American robber baron’s daughter with a large fortune – back into the 18th century. As Venetia tells her friends:
Don’t be deceived”¦.Like most of the French aristocracy, my parents-in-law are simply keeping up appearances”¦. They fell like vultures on my meager little allowance so heaven knows what they will make of all your thousands, darling.
The girls are a hit in France, mostly because there is a love of all that is English among the higher circles of society. Miss Roche, who has connections among the families of her former students, is able to introduce the girls to the members of the French nobility who can help them get their feet in the door. Between the efforts of Miss Roche, the sponsorship of their friend Comtesse Venetia, and the friendship of salonniere Madame d’Albret, everything looks like it’s going to turn out splendidly.
Yet underneath the glitter of the French court and the girls’ heady excitement, something deep and dark is boiling in the blood of the French people. While the reader knows what it is, the characters don’t, and Clegg uses this to create perfectly delightful moments of dread, particularly in this passage:
“And do you find Paris changed much since you were last here?” [Madame d’Albret] asked Sidonie with a smile.
Sidonie considered this for a moment. “I do,” she said. “There’s something in the air”¦”
Madame d’Albret nodded. “It’s the calm before the storm,” she said with a sad look out of her window at the beautiful, serene Place Royale. “And when the storm comes, nothing will ever be the same again.”
Clementine gave a shiver. She had no idea what Madame d’Albret’s words meant but they made her feel suddenly helpless and afraid.
Clegg, who is extremely well-versed in many historical aspects of the 18th century, offers not a frothy, softly lit image of it, but a realistic portrayal. While the descriptions of the gowns at Madame Rose Bertin’s shop and the ladies at their toilette evoke the glamorous side of late 18th-century upper-class life, there is also the earthier side to it: the damp garrets, the foul city air, and “the itchy, flea-infested sheets of what was alleged to be the best hotel in Calais.” She gives us a picture of the beginning of an end, of the approaching storm, when everything will come crashing down and things will change forever.
*This novel is available only in ebook format.