Review: THE GENERAL’S MISTRESS by Jo Graham
In Short: The French Revolution as seen through the sensual journey of a runaway, psychic bride.
“It’s the women who are always the Doves in this family. That’s how it started. Johann van Aylde killed his own virgin daughter to make a pact with the Devil. Because she was a Dove, and she could see things in the mirror.”
– Elza’s mother
There are certain constants in literature. You pick up the latest novel by Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, you know what you’re getting. The same can be said about Jo Graham. Picking up one of her novels, you’re all but guaranteed a rich story steeped with history, romance, sensuality, and strong female characters. You can also count on her to make the supernatural seem commonplace.
In this novel (and planned future novels), she introduces us to the amazing Ida St. Elme. Or Elzelina Versfelt, or even Charles van Aylde. Elza (as I’ll refer to her from here on just for convenience) actually existed, but she was so quick to adjust the facts of her personal history depending on who she was with that it’s hard to know exactly what is the truth. The novel begins when Elza flees from a loveless marriage to France, becoming mistress to a powerful French commander named Moreau in exchange for his protection.
As the French revolution rages around her, Elza struggles to find her place in the world. Through correspondence with a cousin, she discovers her abandoned husband is threatening to declare her insane and toss her into an asylum like her mother before her. Avoiding the threat becomes Elza’s motivation to find something, anything. that will secure her place in the world away from his clutches. She attempts acting but her true calling comes from a sham séance where she inadvertently falls back on a true second sight to tell the fortunes of guests.
This second sight is what drives Elza to make her choices, be they disastrous or fortuitous. She writes a letter to her current lover and a man with whom she is infatuated and mails them at the same time. It’s not hard to guess what happens next, and one has to wonder if some part of Elza’s mind made the switch on purpose in order to begin the next part of her journey. Through tarot and her dreams, Elza finds herself haunted by half-remembered lives and faces she can’t quite recognize in ghostly visions that pull her along toward her destiny.
It should be mentioned that this book is both stand-alone and connected to Jo Graham’s other works. It’s not necessary to read Black Ships, Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire to know what’s going on in this book. Anyone can come into this novel completely oblivious to Jo Graham’s writings and still enjoy the story as it is (Elza herself doesn’t know what the visions mean, so she’s in the same boat as the reader). If you have read those novels, you’ll notice certain buzz words popping up in the text that turns this from a great story into a new piece in a delicately woven tapestry of one soul’s passage through history. And as a huge fan of Jo Graham and Melissa Scott’s Lost Things, I was very pleased when a character began talking about lodge meetings.
I will say one thing about the sex scenes because they can get rather graphic. Anyone picking up a book called The General’s Mistress hopefully has a decent idea of what to expect when things move to the boudoir. The sex here definitely falls more under the banner of “erotica” than smut. Without seeing Elza’s interactions with Moreau, for instance, it might be easy to dismiss her relationship with him as one of dominance and submission. But since we’re inside Elza’s head during these interludes, we see her as more than just a cowed woman being taken against her will. We see her discover the power she can attain by giving up control. With scenes of spanking and willing submission, one might compare it to Fifty Shades of Grey, only with a competent writer at the helm.
Too much is lost with fading to black. Cutting to “the next morning” can make it too easy to dismiss any revelations as denial or putting a good face on a bad situation. By showing the sex, we see Elza taking control of a different part of her life. This book takes place in the late 1700s and early 1800s, a time when a woman “with experience” was considered ruined. Seeing Elza take a controlling role in her own sexuality shows what kind of woman she was. She was no one’s whore, but she wasn’t above using her sexuality to get what she wanted and needed.
The General’s Mistress is a gorgeous book, a tumultuous moment in history seen through the eyes of a woman who is living both in and beyond her own time. Like Elza, the book manages to straddle the modern-day and the past to be both authentic and accessible to the readers. The result is a beautiful, sensual journey of a woman with many names trying to find her true identity.
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