The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne, Sieur de Marsac (1893)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne, Sieur de Marsac was written by Stanley J. Weyman and first appeared as a serial in Longman’s Magazine (Jan-Dec 1893). The British Weyman (1855-1928) was an unsuccessful lawyer who turned to writing to support himself. With the help of Andrew Lang, Weyman’s first novel, House of the Wolf (1890), was published and his fortune made. Throughout the 1890s Weyman was enormously successful, producing one memorable historical novel after another and earning himself the nickname “the English Dumas.”
Gaston de Marsac is an impoverished French nobleman and veteran during France’s “War of the Three Henrys” during the late sixteenth century. He is of high background but has few prospects as his former patron, the Prince of Condé, has recently died. Gaston writes directly to King Henry of Navarre, asking to be entered into his service, but the King’s secretary does not deliver the letter, using it as an opportunity to humiliate Gaston in front of the King’s court. Gaston does take advantage of his trip to the court to make contact with M. du Plessis Mornay, one of the King’s advisors. Mornay and Navarre secretly give Gaston a mission: to carry off Mademoiselle de la Vire. De la Vire is the ward of the Vicomte de Turenne, who is the creature of Henry of Guise, one of Navarre’s rivals. Gaston rides to Turenne’s castle and succeeds in taking de la Vire out of Turenne’s castle, but relations between Gaston and de la Vire are cold: she is one of those who had previously mocked Gaston, and he had lost the token which the King had given him to let de la Vire know that Gaston was on a mission from the King. Gaston brings de la Vire to the rendezvous location, the city of Blois, but discovers that Rosny, the lord who would take charge of de la Vire, has relocated to his house, two days’ ride away. There are no rooms available in Blois, so Gaston brings de la Vire to the house in which his mother lives. Gaston is appalled to discover that his mother is sick and poor. Although he has been faithfully sending her money every month she was blackmailed by a priest who threatened to reveal that both she and Gaston are Huguenots. Gaston lies to his mother about his own declining fortunes, which Mlle. de la Vire scorns him for. Gaston leaves de la Vire with his mother so that he can buy some good new clothing for himself, but when he returns his mother is dying and de la Vire and her maid have disappeared.
Gaston discovers that they were taken and held in the house of one of Turenne’s allies, M. de Bruhl. Gaston hires a doctor to care for his mother and then breaks into de Bruhl’s house. De la Vire seems happy to see Gaston, but while he is fighting off de Bruhl’s hirelings she disappears, and Gaston cannot find her. After Gaston’s mother dies he travels to Rosny’s home and reports that de la Vire is gone and the mission was a failure. Rosny seems unhappy at this news, but then reveals that he is having Gaston on and that de la Vire is safe with Rosny. When Gaston, Rosny, and de la Vire hear that Henry of Navarre is ill, they leave to visit him. During the trip de la Vire is vexed with Gaston for his humble abasement toward other men; the reader sees in her behavior that she has begun to fall in love with Gaston, but he does not realize that. After the trip, during which Gaston and de la Vire encounter both danger and Nostradamus, they reach the castle of Blois. Gaston secretly meets with Henry III, the King of France, and they launch an intrigue against Turenne: De la Vire knows something negative about Turenne, and if she can be persuaded to tell Henry of Navarre what she knows, that would drive Henry of Navarre into an alliance with Henry III. But de la Vire is still angry with Gaston and refuses to testify against Turenne. Gaston persuades Henry of Navarre to visit her, and she tells Henry what she knows. But as she is doing so Gaston is arrested for having killed the priest who blackmailed his mother. (Gaston was not directly responsible for the priest’s death but had some hand in arranging it). Gaston agrees to go jail to preserve Henry of Navarre’s secrecy, but while Gaston is in jail M. de Bruhl kidnaps Mlle. de la Vire. Gaston is freed from jail from a friend, and they ride off in pursuit of M. de Bruhl. They discover that M. de Bruhl has the plague, and Gaston, ever the gentleman, cares for de Bruhl while he dies, only to catch the plague himself. Gaston is cared for by Mlle. de la Vire and eventually recovers. When he is healthy enough, he and de la Vire declare their love for each other.
After they hear that Henry of Navarre and Henry III have allied with each other, Gaston and de la Vire travel to join the kings, but Gaston allows himself to be provoked into a bar brawl. Gaston’s actions during the brawl gain him the admiration of M. de Crillon, who Gaston eventually discovers is the Vicomte de Turenne. (Neither knew the other’s true identity during the fight). For political reasons Henry of Navarre cannot give Gaston any protection, and when Gaston goes to Henry III for help he is too slow to prevent the King’s assassination. After further tribulations Gaston is reward with a Lieutenant Governorship by Henry of Navarre (now King Henry IV of France) and marries Mlle de la Vire.
A Gentleman of France is typically excellent work by Weyman. Weyman is often classed with the other Yellow Nineties historical romance swashbuckler authors like S.R. Crockett (see: The Grey Man) and John Bloundelle-Burton (see: Denounced). But what is distinctive about Weyman, and what sets him apart from his contemporaries, is the emphasis he places on characterization. Most of Weyman’s contemporaries struck a balance between characterization and action scenes. Some (see: The Rebels) were more successful at this than others (see: The Knights of the White Rose). But most (with the rare exception of someone like John Bennett; see: Master Skylark) included a substantial number of action-adventure scenes, such as fights, rescues, horseback chases, and so on. Weyman does not eschew these entirely, but he subordinates them to the service of the plot, so that they are much less important, in the context of his stories, than the relationships between the characters. This is especially true in A Gentleman of France, which is much more concerned with the life of Gaston de Marsac and his relationship with Mademoiselle de la Vire than with Gaston’s daring exploits. Where a writer like Levett-Yeats would have spent time emphasizing feats at arms (see: The Honour of Savelli), Weyman prefers to portray the development of Gaston’s relationship with Mlle. de la Vire.
Weyman also is a defter stylist than most of his contemporary historical romancers. Style seems not to have been a major concern for many of Weyman’s contemporaries. Even the best of them tended to use a transparent, affectless style (see: To Have and To Hold). Weyman used a slightly different approach in A Gentleman of France than he did in From the Memoirs of a Minister of France, adopting an older tone and vocabulary, almost more fitting for a Dumas (see: The Three Musketeers) than for Weyman. But he does keep the leanness of prose and the emphasis on realistic dialogue and interior monologues revealing character. If A Gentleman of France lacks the wit and pleasing cynicism of From the Memoirs of a Minister of France, it is because Gaston de Marsac is not as witty or as cynical as the Duc de Sully.
As in his other novels Weyman’s recreation of the past is superior. He slowly accumulates historical detail and skillfully presents it to the reader, who is always given enough information to keep themselves informed about the novel’s historical context while never being subjected to infodumps. The characters’ voices are realistic within the historical context–it is always clear that Gaston de Marsac and his friends are products of their time and place, rather than being nineteenth century characters in the sixteenth century (see: Westward Ho!).
While Weyman’s The House of the Wolf (1890) was his first success, “Weyman’s true energies were first revealed, in all their power, in A Gentleman of France / Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne, Sieur de Marsac (1893).”1 Weyman’s success with A Gentleman of France inspired many other writers—he was virtually at the head of the Yellow Nineties historical romance swashbuckler authors—but as mentioned there were numerous aspects of his work that set him apart from his colleagues:
Weyman, from the beginning, took a distinctive line, and should not have been regarded as a clever, commercial-minded follower of the Dumas père tradition. In three major respects Weyman differed from the romancers¼he delighted in heroes who did not look like heroes, and who, despite a willingness to do the right thing whenever an emergency beckoned, groaned at the very thought that they must bestir themselves. He probably had as little liking for the pretty language of cardboard romance as any writer of historical novels during this time-period, and his novels indicate, by omission, how much their author detested the conventional vocabulary of politesse. And he involved his characters intimately with historical events; they did not observe them from the sidelines; they were present at critical moments, and on occasion they even precipitated the change in destiny that overtook Court and country.2
A Gentleman of France was the first of Weyman’s major novels, and was for many people their favorite Weyman novel. A Gentleman of France will delight any modern readers interested in swashbucklers or historical romances.
Print: Stanley J. Weyman, A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne, Sieur de Marsac. Los Angeles, CA: Hardpress Publishing, 2013.
For Further Research
Harold Orel, The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini: Changing Attitudes toward a Literary Genre, 1814-1920. New York: Palgrave, 1995.
1 Harold Orel, The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini: Changing Attitudes toward a Literary Genre, 1814-1920 (New York: Palgrave, 1995), 104.
2 Orel, The Historical Novel, 105-106.