Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Refugees by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Oh, I love this book.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known everywhere as the author of Sherlock Holmes, still the world's most famous detective. With Holmes he tried to show how mysteries could be solved purely through an infallible human reason. In later years he fell into spiritualism.
Not an inspiring theological record by any means. It puzzles me how he could have turned out a book as nearly right as this one.
Paris, 1685. Amory de Catinat, one of King Louis XIV's trusted guardsmen, feels that life is good. As a guardsman, he occupies a good position, but not one good enough to be envied and taken from him by jealous courtiers. As a Huguenot, he has no problem keeping quiet about his faith, but even from his enemies he is protected by the Edict of Nantes, which for the last hundred years has allowed Huguenots freedom of conscience. And finally, there's his lovely fiancee, his cousin Adele, who is both good and well-off.
De Catinat's future seems secure and easy...
King Louis XIV faces a crisis of conscience. All his life he's luxuriated in the attentions of a string of mistresses who each lavished care on him, bore his children, glittered in his court, and obeyed his every whim. His unfaithfulness to his now-dead wife never bothered his conscience before, but now he has a reason to reform: he has fallen in love with his children's nanny, the gentle, intelligent, and good Madame de Maintenon—and she refuses to become his next mistress.
Her employer, the king's current mistress Madame de Montespan—the fabulous, the enchanting, the wily Madame de Montespan—is outraged. Has she not been the king's mistress for the last twenty years? How could it happen that this quiet, nun-taught nanny could supplant her? De Montespan determines to leave no stone unturned to win back the king's affections.
But she has rallied too late: Louis is lost to her. Pity the guardsman who must tell de Montespan that the King has forbidden her to visit him, and then bars her way when she insists! So de Catinat earns her fury and and her malice. But it is not the wicked and unprincipled de Montespan who is destined to endanger his life and the lives of thousands of others, who will send them all fleeing from their beloved France in poverty and in danger, everywhere they go, of death and imprisonment.
No, it is Madame de Maintenon, filled with zeal for the Catholic church, who will ask as her wedding-present the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and cause immense destruction to the Huguenots.
How de Catinat found himself, at last, unable to recant his faith for the sake of material gain, and how he was forced to flee with his family to the New World, where they faced danger from all sides in their journey from Canada to the Protestant colonies of New England, makes for a gripping read.
There are many things to like about The Refugees. It's chock-full of adventure, peril, melodrama, palace intrigue, and romance; and I have never forgotten the history I learned from reading it. I love the characters—Conan Doyle has a lot of fun writing about melodramatic French people and he makes Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon, and Madame de Montespan come to life. Madame de Maintenon in particular is an extraordinary character, both historically and in this book: devout and possibly quite sincere, she anchored Louis's roving heart for good and refused to sin when he asked her to. Yet at the same time she is the woman who unleashed such terror upon the Huguenots, from the exodus of whom France never recovered.
In addition Conan Doyle is a fantastic writer. Those of you who have only read the Sherlock Holmes stories hardly know him: in his historical romances he sheds the dry, scientific style of Dr Watson and stands forth as a lush, stirring, and frequently hilarious author. Extravagant adventures are narrated in the best high melodramatic style and comic relief is never far away. In The Refugees, Doyle had the great idea of introducing De Catinat's American Puritan cousin Amos Green, whose way of navigating through Paris involves blazing marks on doorposts and who longs to bag some of the deer from the king's forest. Though comically out of his depth in sophisticated and witty Paris, Green has a large quantity of wisdom which frequently steadies the more excitable Amory:

Sobbing, gesticulating, with coat unbuttoned and hat awry, he burst into the stable where placid Amos Green was smoking his pipe and watching with critical eyes the grooming of the horses.
"What in thunder is the matter now?" he asked, holding his pipe by the bowl, while the blue wreaths curled up from his lips.
"This sword," cried the Frenchman -- "I have no right to wear it! I shall break it!"
"Well, and I'll break my knife too if it will hearten you up."
The main thing to love about The Refugees, as far as I am concerned, is that it is a fantastic swashbuckling tale set in Old France...starring Huguenots. When I read Dumas's The Three Musketeers, I was quite repulsed by the lax morals and heavily humanist message, which quite spoiled the swashbuckling fun. In The Three Musketeers, Huguenots are mentioned only to be ridiculed. In The Refugees, they're the heroes.
But what kind of Huguenot does Doyle depict? Taking a second look at the book, I begin to wonder if de Catinat's religion is merely humanism under another name:
But indeed, nephew, it is strange to me how you can live in this house of Baal and yet bow down to no false gods."
"I keep my belief in my own heart."
The older man shook his head gravely.
"Your ways lie along a very narrow path," said he, "with temptation and danger ever at your feet. It is hard for you to walk with the Lord, Amory, and yet go hand in hand with the persecutors of His people."
"Tut, uncle!" said the young man impatiently. "I am a soldier of the king's, and I am willing to let the black gown and the white surplice settle these matters between them. Let me live in honour and die in my duty, and I am content to wait to know the rest."
"Content, too, to live in palaces, and eat from fine linen," said the Huguenot bitterly, "when the hands of the wicked are heavy upon your kinsfolk.”
It's true that later, de Catinat refuses to adjure the Reformed faith to become a Catholic. But the reason he gives for remaining a Huguenot is not that it is right, or that he should obey God rather than man. No, his reason is that he is an honourable man, and that it would be dishonourable and hypocritical for him to become a Catholic not because he believes in it but only to gain worldly advancement. Quite right and true; but I feel that it ought not to have been his first answer. Ah well, it fits with his character, and he is shown up, as in the quote above, by others more devout than he.
Another shortcoming of this book is the fact that it glosses over a major motivation in Louis's revoking the Edict, which was his displeasure that certain of his subjects believed differently to what he wished them to believe. Louis called himself “The Sun King” and lived up to that name all his life: in royal ballet he appeared as the Sun and he even built Versailles to contain his bedroom and private apartments exactly in the middle. Louis XIV believed in himself as the absolute monarch and believed that France should both revolve around him and reflect his own glory.
It is easy to see why he chose to persecute the Huguenots, who not only dared to believe differently, but actually proclaimed God as Sovereign above all earthly kings!
Apart from these things, The Refugees provides a great introduction to French politics and history at the time of the revocation. It's heaps of fun, and provides an unforgettable fictional peg on which to hang some real history! Go forth and read it!
Although this book was once very hard to find, it is now available from Inheritance Publications, one of my favourite publishers—they put out such excellent books!

1 comment:

Swati said...

And of course now it is available as a free e-text on Project Gutenberg and other such sites :)


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