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Introduction by Mervyn Horder
London, Colburn, 1850. 3 volumes
Still in search of a success after the failure of his first two (Irish-themed) novels, in his third Trollope turned for inspiration to revolutionary France, specifically the Vendean uprising in France just after the execution of Louis XVI.
The area in France known as La Vendée is situated just below Brittany where the coastline turns due south. The Memoires of the Marquise de la Rochejaquelin had first been published in England in 1816 in a translation by Walter Scott, and Trollope used them as the basis for his novel. (He certainly had no direct knowledge of the area, as he admitted in his Autobiography.)
The Vendean uprising itself was composed of wealthy landowning noblemen and – ironically – a great number of peasant smallholders, eager that the traditional ways of church and state should not be swept away. The plot of the novel follows the beginning of the Vendean’s uprising and their initial successes, first at Chatillon, Thouars and Fontenoy, culminating in their success at besieging Saumur and finally capturing it. Their success is short-lived, and the Republican armies invade the province burning towns, villages and chateaux in their wake.
Trollope’s cleverness lies in basing his novel on some real people and mixing them in with invented characters of his own, the result being vaguely similar to Dumas in its intent and scope. Henri de Larochejaquelin was a real person, and the second – very youthful – leader of the Vendean troops. He is heir to property in the province of Poitou, the Chateau of Durbelliere, and Trollope invents a family for him, including his sister Agatha, and crippled father, the old Marquis. Another real character is Charles de Lescure, cousin of Henri and himself a wealthy landowner, living at Clisson in Poitou and Commander-in-chief of the Royalist party. Trollope gives him a sister Marie, romantically involved with Henri. Also real is the character Jacques Cathlineau, a peasant smallholder who, as a result of his loyalty and belief in the Royalists’ cause, was rewarded by being made general-in-chief. The main character in the novel whom Trollope invented is that of Adolphe Denot, the anti-hero and turncoat of the story, initially a friend to Henri and Charles. Handsome, vain, a show-off, he is in love with Henri’s sister Agatha, and when she rejects him turns against the cause and joins the Republicans against his former friends. He later leads the Republican forces in a raid on the chateau in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seize Agatha.