By the time I got five pages in, the protagonist, a prisoner sentenced to death by the Revolution, had already:
- complained about the fact that everyone else slated for execution is being annoyingly noble and nonchalant about it
- complained vociferously about the fact that he’s slated to be executed under the wrong name
- been required to prove his identity by flashing his uniquely-scarred ass at the Tribunal (one cheek was bitten by a dog and has never recovered)
- protested to the Tribunal - who think he is a Viscomte in hiding, and do not believe that he is a real actor because the secret policeman who saw him on stage officially reported back that he was unbelievably bad - that he IS a real actor, he’s actually a GREAT actor, he was just TIRED that day
- managed to stave off execution due to the fact, in addition to the committee that wants to execute him for being a Viscomte in hiding, there’s ANOTHER committee that wants to execute him for being a spying Englishman and they cannot agree on who's right
At this point I almost stopped reading because this was already basically a perfect book and things could only go downhill from here.
The Way to the Lantern is essentially a reverse Scarlet Pimpernel: instead of being a brilliant mastermind with twelve identities which are never connected by the Revolutionary authorities, Our Hero is a completely irrelevant actor named Roberts who, through a series of poor decisions and unlucky catastrophes, accidentally has the Revolutionary authorities convinced that he is a brilliant mastermind with twelve identities.
After our initial introduction to the Tribunal, the imminent execution, etc., Our Hero begins to recount his life story. After an unpromising and illegitimate start in life, Our Hero encounters a dedicated actor/petty thief/con-artist named Manager Smith, aka M.S., who takes him under his wing to teach him the ways of PICKPOCKETING, CON ARTISTRY, and THE THEATRE.
M.S.: My boy, I see in you a prodigious talent and I am determined to somehow steal you ... A STAGE!
OUR HERO: How are we going to do that?
M.S.: I am going to make the ultimate sacrifice .... MARRIAGE.
(Sidenote: M.S. explicitly has no interest in sex with anyone, at all, though he will put up with it for the sake of conning someone out of their fortune if necessary.)
Unfortunately, it turns out that the marital mark -- generally referred to as the Rare Sacrifice -- is smarter than he is, and it is only by dint of great effort after several years that M.S. is eventually able to get her to put up the money for a small theater where Our Hero begins to make his name.
Eventually, a rich, plain, extremely competent English heiress named Lizzie Weldon hires Our Hero to play her fake French boyfriend, Philippe-Jean-Baptiste-Raoul Viscomte de Lambriere, for the purpose of making her one suitor jealous so he will finally propose. Unfortunately, Our Hero plays his role too well.
LIZZIE WELDON: I have turned down my suitor, because I'm in love with Philippe.
OUR HERO: ...you mean you're in love with me?
LIZZIE WELDON: No, obviously I'm not in love with you, you're a common actor and I find you incredibly obnoxious. I'm in love with Philippe and I intend to marry him.
OUR HERO: You know that Philippe ... is not a real person .......
LIZZIE WELDON: Yes, I'm perfectly aware that I have fallen in love with someone who doesn't exist, but I have the money to pay you to make him exist, which I think is an extremely reasonable plan under the circumstances.
Our Hero, however, does not want to be a rich fake Viscount, he wants to be an ACTOR, so he turns her down flat.
Unfortunately, Lizzie's initial rejected suitor then attempts to murder Our Hero, who accidentally kills him in self-defense.
LIZZIE WELDON: How unfortunate it would be if my poor murdered suitor's father were ever to find out about this! Alas, I'm afraid that I will just have to tell him all about it unless you agree to marry me as Philippe immediately.
OUR HERO: Alas, how unfortunate it would be if I FAKED MY OWN DEATH AND LEFT FOR FRANCE, IMMEDIATELY.
(THE REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNAL, LATER: You obviously can't be an actor named Roberts, because Roberts is very clearly dead.
OUR HERO, LATER: Look, everyone has to fake their own deaths from time to time. It's perfectly reasonable and I don't see why you can't understand that.)
So Our Hero and M.S. book it to France, which coincidentally is just about to have a Revolution.
Our Hero is fairly pro-Revolution, and every so often vaguely intends to get involved, but usually gets distracted before he can. For example: he occasionally attends political education classes at the house of his revolutionary friend Peche! Unfortunately, both he and Peche get wildly drunk while attempting to explain to the students that Monsieur Veto is an abstract personification of the King's unfair political powers, rather than an actual villainous individual who is engaged in a menage-a-trois with the King and Queen while plotting the ruin of the country. As a result, they sleep right through the storming of the Bastille.
(THE REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNAL, LATER: Clearly you're an enemy of the people who deliberately got Citoyen Peche drunk in order to make him sleep through the Bastille-storming and undermine his work in the Revolution!)
At this point, Our Hero also acquires a nemesis: a tiny pickpocket named Suzon Dupont, whom M.S. immediately adopts as his new beloved child.
THE LITTLEST PICKPOCKET: I am so very sorry for my new beloved uncle for having the misfortune to be responsible for you, the worst. It's all right, new beloved uncle, I'm going to take care of you now.
Our Hero, meanwhile, attempts and fails to explain to The Littlest Pickpocket that Stealing is Wrong, mostly because he's annoyed that she's much better at it than he is.
(Note: The one noticeable piece of weird racism in this book is that everyone is constantly commenting on how Chinese Suzon looks. I do not think Suzon is actually textually intended to be Asian, but I guess it's a good argument for casting an actress of color in a film version??)
Eventually, of course, Suzon comes round to Our Hero and decides that she's going to marry him when she grows up despite the fact that he is useless and the worst. I was deeply concerned this might actually happen and Suzon would turn out to be the Final Love Interest, but in fact it never does! Our Hero, M.S., and Suzon form a weird, affectionate, and terrible con artist family, and occasionally Suzon attempts to seduce Our Hero, and Our Hero is like "hahahaha! No, keep away from me, you creepy child."
(To be clear: I do think the book would like us to think that it's possible that Our Hero and Suzon will find true love together at some future point, but Our Hero's actual narration remains steadfast that it's not going to happen and therefore I, too, choose to believe this.)
Meanwhile, Our Hero has created a whole new fake persona for himself as Buckland, a well-to-do English gentleman, in order to pursue a wildly unhealthy relationship with the aristocrat Marie-Clarice.
MARIE-CLARICE: I support the Revolution one hundred percent! Look, here is my revolutionary footman, who hates the aristocracy and would happily see us all murdered.
OUR HERO: Maybe ... you should not wear quite all your diamonds when you go to political education meetings, Marie-Clarice?
MARIE-CLARICE: I refuse to condescend to the good citizens of France by not dressing my best when I go out to meet them!
Marie-Clarice is actually quite kind and well-intentioned, very genuine in her support for the Revolution, and obviously doomed. Either way, she is very bad for Our Hero, who eventually loses his acting job because he is so tired out from all the wild sex that they have every night that he can't remember his lines. Eventually, his weird con artist family turns up at Marie-Claire's to rescue him from this life of dissipation.
SUZON: You must let him go! I'M ENGAGED TO HIM AND PREGNANT.
MARIE-CLARICE: Oh my god, this is terrible! Child, I am going to take care of you! I will make sure you go to SCHOOL! I will give you an EDUCATION! We will make sure your child is adopted a GOOD HOME! You can be ANYTHING YOU WANT -- why is she running away?
M.S.: My boy, I am bringing you home so you can resume your training as an ACTOR.
OUR HERO: You can't make me!
M.S.: [knocks out Our Hero and wanders away with his terrible son on his shoulders]
ALL MARIE-CLARICE'S DINNER PARTY GUESTS: ... what is happening.
Around this time the Terror really starts getting into full swing. Suzon gets denounced and is in prison for a while, which is pretty much the only time that Our Hero actually interacts with any of the more prominent figures of the Revolution -- specifically, all the female ones, such as Mrs. Danton and Robespierre's sister, as he attempts to charm at least one of them into putting in a good word for Suzon. (He does catch a glimpse of Marat in his bathtub, after mistaking Marat's sister for his girlfriend, and confusedly attempting to appeal to her deep understanding of romantic love.) Then, almost immediately after Suzon is released, Marie-Clarice is arrested after being denounced by her revolutionary footman and he has to do the whole thing again, and less successfully. Sorry, Marie-Clarice. :(
This eventually brings us up to dire situation at the beginning of the book, when Our Hero does his one heroic act in the entire story and turns himself to the Committee of General Security in to save M.S. and Suzon. It looks to be curtains for him, when who should show up but ... Lizzie Weldon!
LIZZIE WELDON: I have realized that it's maybe, possibly, just conceivable, that I'm actually in love with you and not imaginary Philippe, who is not a real person.
OUR HERO: ........ well that's nice???
LIZZIE WELDON: I have come up with a brilliant and elaborately Scarlet Pimpermel-ish plot to save your life and smuggle you out of France. However, in exchange, you have to sign this confession of murder so I have permanent blackmail over you, and agree to marry me.
OUR HERO: ............ I GUESS?????
This turns into an amazing battle of wits between Our Hero and Lizzie Weldon, as Our Hero desperately attempts to figure out how to turn her escape plan for one into an escape plan for his entire con artist family that will also get him out of handing blackmail material over to Lizzie.
Anyway, the battle of wills ends in a compromise of sorts. Everyone is free and in England, but also, Our Hero has definitely signed the blackmail confession and is also definitely on the verge of being forced to marry Lizzie.
M.S. AND SUZON: Well, really! This is a nice fix you've gotten yourself into!
OUR HERO: I made a PACT to sacrifice my LIFE and nearly DIED for you two UNGRATEFUL --
M.S. AND SUZON: Well, we're sure you'll figure it out. We'll wait for you in Ireland. Good luck!
AND THAT'S WHERE THE BOOK ENDS.
Conclusion: the book does not quite live up to the first five pages (but then, WHAT COULD??) but it is wildly enjoyable and I would wholeheartedly recommend it as an entertaining reading experience. Really the only flaw is the fact that literally every character falls in love with Our Hero, who in no way merits it because they're all far more competent than he is -- but at least, unlike, for example, the historical works populated by Dorothy Dunnett, the book is very clear on the fact that Our Hero in no way merits it because they're all far more competent than he is.
Honestly, I was genuinely impressed by the respect this 1961 novel maintains for all the women in it. Given the roles that Lizzie and Marie-Clarice play in the story, it would be incredibly easy for either or both of them to be written as silly, foolish, pathetic or despicable. Instead, we get moments like Marie-Clarice's impassioned defense of Suzon, or this little speech Our Hero gives to Lizzie: "I admire you very much. Your appalling frankness, your ruthlessness, your determination to have your own way, the lengths to which you're willing to go to get it, and the straightforward manner in which you do it -- that has its own fascination. At least it's nothing one could ever despise." YES, GOOD. I AGREE.
Anyway I am now obviously planning to seek out everything else Audrey Erskine Lindop has ever written, so LOOK FORWARD TO MORE OF THAT.
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