A Conversation on the Quai Voltaire By Lee Langley

Not much beneath the tricorne hat
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The Independent Culture

His life was well-documented (not least by himself) and full of incident but paradoxically, rich details can turn into shackles for even such a fine historical novelist as Lee Langley. Constrained to move with Denon from episode to episode, she has closed down her fictional options. It doesn't help that she opts to call her subject "V". This just underlines the suspicion that she doesn't really know him very well.

Racing to keep up with her fast-moving hero, perhaps trying to mimic his own light-as-air style, she falls into glibness ("V was happy in Sicily as he was in every foreign place. When he set off on a journey he sprouted wings; he felt himself fly free from the earth. In a new land, though not part of it, he was a blank canvas..."). We sense there isn't much beneath the tricorne hat.

To kickstart and frame her plot, Langley allows herself to invent two characters. A man is never a hero to his valet, and Baptiste, whose mother was V's wetnurse, grows up alongside his master, shares all his adventures and, as the novel opens, is glumly keeping house on the Quai Voltaire as Denon lies dying upstairs. Baptiste, Langley explains in an epilogue, "must in various manifestations have existed, but... for me [he] is embodied in one man". As secretary, friend, confessor and amanuensis, he's a useful device for the novelist.

Life, once so boundless for V, has shrunk to this suite of rooms, but the former art advisor to Napoleon still has some nice things on the wall. To the quiet house comes Zenobia, a young woman demanding to see "the Baron". Why is Baptiste so determined to keep her away from his master? Why does he seem terrified of what she will uncover ("Baptiste, I want answers!")? Here Langley creates both an effective historical mystery story and an affecting emotional drama.

Playful as the notion evidently is to Langley, the problem with having one man as valet throughout his period is that it takes little account of the seismic change in master-servant relations brought about by the Revolution. Baptiste does have an emotional life, but he is so self-effacing and accommodating that he really doesn't amount to much more than a device. With Zenobia, things get more interesting; she allows the author to explore hidden aspects of Napoleon's Egypt campaign. As for Denon, there doesn't seem to be much more to him than his charming manner and pretty dimple. Perhaps that's how it was.

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