By Steve Hall
Few of the millions of fans who have thrilled to the adventures of Angélique de Sancé de Morens as she blazed through the barbaric 17th Century realise the enormous amount of effort and research that helped make the series of 13 books so true to life – and made them bestsellers, with over 200 million copies sold worldwide.
Enraptured by Angélique’s compelling adventures, and perhaps misled by a series of inappropriate and often appallingly designed and executed covers, they simply enjoyed the superbly-written tale of Angélique’s fight for freedom and the right to live her life in her own way.
The Angélique series is to historical fiction what the Lord of the Rings is to fantasy – the original, epic work that set the standard and still does.
The fact that the Angélique books number thirteen volumes (so far), with most comprising over 500 pages and packed with astonishingly vivid and accurate historical detail, make author Anne Golon’s achievement all the more remarkable.
When the first book, simply titled Angélique (but later split into two volumes totaling over 800 pages), thundered into the worldwide bestseller lists in 1958 it was met with widespread critical acclaim as well as enormous popular success.
Admiring literary critics recorded how Anne Golon and her husband Serge had researched over 700 historical texts in the library of Versailles to create a pastiche of Louis XIV’s early reign, packed with intimate and accurate details enhancing a story that would capture the imagination of millions and spark five highly popular French movies.
The Golons studied fashions, menus, correspondence, military dispatches, pictures, Louis XIV’s rigid work schedule and court timetables, maps and the physical layout of the areas where the action takes place, including the magnificent Palace of Versailles.
The first three books, set mainly in Paris and Versailles, contain detailed descriptions of clothes, dinners, alchemy, intrigues, battles, palaces, political attitudes, religious arguments and beliefs, the processes of mining for and purifying gold, how to smuggle silver converted to a worthless-appearing substance, witchcraft trials, medicines and philtres – and the improbable but accurate descriptions of the ‘Court of Miracles’, where Paris’s beggars, cripples and cutthroats gathered.
All are compelling, and all are immaculately researched so that they are an accurate record of the times.
As the action moved to the New World in the later books, Anne travelled to Maine and Canada, discovering texts, family documents and histories that had lain unread for generations.
In French-speaking Canada she is recognised, even today, as one of the leading authorities on the Iroquois and the other varied Indian nations of the era.
Her descriptions of the Redskins’ relationship with the land, their Gods, the Jesuits, the French, the English and each other all paint a picture of early American Indian life matched by no other and one that is significantly more accurate (and enjoyable) than J Fenimore Cooper’s famous Last of the Mohicans.
Anne was also one of the first people to undertake in-depth research on the little-known wolverine, or glutton, a species which is native to the area.
But as Anne, assisted by her husband Serge until his untimely death in Quebec in 1972 (while Anne was researching for Angélique in Quebec) continued her magnus opus, the books were gradually devalued.
The misleading covers, often depicting a scantily dressed Angélique in impossibly out-of-period costume, the misclassification of the books as romance or even erotica, and the movies (which, while exposing Angélique to millions, unfortunately portrayed her as a shallow and selfish shadow of her true self) all played their part.
A Masters thesis written, at Alberta University, Canada, ably proved that the two most successful so-called ‘romance’ writers, namely Anne Golon and Catherine Cookson, in fact demonstrated none of the formulas and characteristics of the typical romance.
It successfully argued that the typical romance featured a heroine who was usually viewed through the reflection of the male lead, and who was incomplete without him – whereas Angélique actually dominates every book of her adventures and all other characters are subservient to her.
This includes her soulmate, Joffrey de Peyrac, who appears in less than 10 per cent of the pages, is totally absent from three of the books and appears only fleetingly in three more.
Today, while millions of devoted Angélique fans still enjoy her adventures, few realise the wealth of historical detail contained in the books, nor the skill required to weave such a detailed picture of the times into an enthralling tale. They have a twist in every chapter, a climax in every part, all woven among philosophical discussions of the meaning of love, life, religion and the politics of the age.
When she puts pen to paper (and she still writes everything by hand today at 79 years of age), Anne Golon’s output is prodigious.
At her peak she wrote ten times more per day than Balzac, who was considered a prolific writer. And behind every page lies days, weeks, even months of painstaking research that allows her to naturally and effortlessly breath life and vivacity into long-dead historical characters.
The research caused descendants of many real-life French families to pursue Anne Golon in court for defamation of the family name, only to retire defeated when they were unable to find fault with her facts.
Now, in a new millennium, Anne Golon has completed another two years of research in the huge bibliotech of Versailles as she prepares to continue Angélique’s adventures in her 14th book, Angélique in the Kingdom of France.
A whole new generation will discover the magic of Angélique – one that will not only race to turn each page to discover the events on the next one, but will simultaneously realise that they are gaining a unique insight into how life really was in those early, primitive, brutal and romantic times.
History was never like that while I was at school.
Steve Hall is the international sales and marketing manager of an Australian software developer who is originally from England but now lives in Sydney. He is the vice-president of Friends of Angélique and is acting as literary agent for Anne in regard to English language publication of the Angélique books.