The Harp Lesson, by Emma Tennant

The tempestuous life and loves of La Belle Pamela

If you want to write about a woman six generations back, it helps if she's a risqué old bird, and they don't come more risqué than La Belle Pamela, or Pamela Sims. Her origins are hazy - she seems to have been brought up a washerwoman's daughter on the English coast, until a French Count whisked her off to the court of Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, cousin to the doomed King Louis.

Speculation has persisted that Pamela was actually the illegitimate daughter of Philippe and his mistress, the ambitious Madame de Genlis. By the time Pamela reached adolescence, the French Revolution had descended into terror, and she escaped to England where she met and married Edward Fitzgerald, the leader of the Irish rebellion, with whom she had one daughter, "little Pam" (who was Tennant's great-great grandmother).

The romance of Pamela's story is irresistible, almost excessively so, its secret identities, midnight flittings and bloody executions the stuff of old-style Gothic fantasies. But Tennant resists that Gothic urge and pares it all down, preferring to keep things low-key. We see La Belle Pamela from her own point of view and that of her daughter, so that the romance and sentiment of the former's voice must exist next to the latter's more factual analysis.

It all seems to promise a much meatier story than Tennant allows here (only a little over 150 pages), but she has chosen to privilege the intriguing over the lurid by offering a leaner slice of delicious family history. It was a wise but no less tasty choice.

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