Season of Light, By Katharine McMahon

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The Independent Culture

It takes a bold writer to tackle the epic canvas of the French Revolution, but historical novelist Katharine McMahon, takes no prisoners in her attempt to recreate the rush of events that even at the time seemed more like fiction than fact. As in a previous novel about the Crimean War, The Rose of Sebastopol, the heroine of the piece is an unconventional young woman with a taste for foreign adventure and intrigue.

In the summer of 1788, 19-year- old Asa Ardleigh accompanies her newly-wed sister, Philippa, on her honeymoon to Paris. The city is alight with revolutionary ideas and it's at the literary salon of Madame de Genlis (the mistress of the Duc D'Orléans) that she falls for a charismatic young lawyer, Didier Paulin. Secret liaisons are conducted in his rooms about the rue de Cherche-Midi, but the affair is broken off when Philippa's pregnancy necessitates a speedy return to England.

Back in rural Sussex, Asa continues to correspond with her inamorata, but her family has other plans. Employing an enigmatic emigree, Madame de Rusigneux, they hope to tame Asa's newly acquired taste for independence and prepare her for marriage with a distant cousin on whom the family estate is entailed. The foppish son of a slaver-owner, Harry Shackleford seems to embody all that Didier is not, but as the novel progresses his unsung virtues come to the fore.

But it's in 1793 that the real drama kicks off. Lured back to France by a note from Didier, Asa gets to witness first-hand the less attractive side of revolution. Louis XVI is dead and the undiluted horrors of the Terror have been unleashed. Back in Didier's hometown of Caen Asa inadvertently becomes involved with Charlotte Corday (yet to surprise Marat in his bath) and watches as ordinary citizens are sent to the guillotine at the merest whisper of political incorrectness.

Watching the dog days of the revolution unfold through the eyes of an outsider enables McMahon to convey the period's climatic events without drowning us in "le detail de tout". More indebted to Georgette Heyer than Hilary Mantel, this fluent and instructive novel captures that heady energy that, in whatever century, proves so attractive to young women seeking "very heaven" in the arms of some revolutionary youth.