Chasing Angels by Sally Zigmond

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Chasing Angels by Sally Zigmond

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Fictionalised biography of the aristocratic Henriette d'Angeville, who in 1838 became only the second woman to climb Mont Blanc, considering the episodes in her life that might have led to the endeavour. It isn't about the climb at all, but about the woman - whilst reaching no convincing conclusions about d'Angeville's own motivations, Zigmond provides a witty insight into European society of the age and is simply a pleasure to read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 143 Date: December 2006
Publisher: Biscuit Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-1903914298

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In 1838, when mountains stood a lot higher in the mind of men than they do now, Henriette d'Angeville a 44-year old aristocratic spinster stood on the summit of Mount Blanc. In fact she didn't just stand there but, to the annoyance of her guides, insisted on sitting down to update her journal and take her scientific measurements.

But Zigmond hasn't set out to tell us the tale of that ascent, which she says the woman did well enough in her own words. Rather than the facts of the climb, we are offered a fiction of possible motivations for it. Not the how, but the why. What might have driven her to go to such heights?

The opening quotes show that this was not considered normal behaviour. A few years after her milestone ascent she was described as a silly old woman not to be taken seriously. Never having walked up the aisle, she had to make do with a virginal trek up Mont Blanc (Louis Hermenous 1846).

A hundred years later attitudes had scarcely changed; in 1950 Claire Elaine Engel indicted her as a spinster who loved Mont Blanc because she had nothing else to love.

Men, it seems, are allowed to climb mountains 'because they are there' - women would appear to need other motivations. One wonders whether Zigmond has done her heroine any favours in trying to seek these out, and whether she comes even remotely close to doing so, but in the process she has given us a vignette on the society of the time as sharp and sparkling as alpine snow.

The story is told episodically as Henriette looks back over her life. We meet her as the child of a languishing countess and prison-damaged count in the years after the French Revolution; again as teenager defying the convent sisters to take in a foundling; we follow her from her family home in France to high society Geneva. Throughout, the mountains are her friend and inspiration ~ but always as seen from the lower slopes. Other than her tendency to walk in all weathers, and a certain wilfulness, there is little to suggest that she will, almost on a whim, decide to climb to the highest summit in Europe... and then do so.

But that does seem to be the essence of at least this fictionalised Henriette: the ability to simply decide that it is the thing to do, and do it. Clearly such a person would not have fitted easily into the salons of the day. Her sister-in-law despaired of her and her adopted Jeanette, and even the ladies of Geneva (who obviously would want to keep in with some-one of money and title ~ albeit less money than once, and a secondary French title) found her ways a little 'lacking'. As a character she is an Austen heroine to the bone. Self-assured, witty, deeply loyal, and totally at odds with what society expects of her.

Be clear though, it is not that she is an ingénue. Henriette knows precisely what is expected. She simply doesn't care to comply.

Chasing Angels has an Austen feel in other respects too. Many of the scenes are a gentle mockery: of the older countess marrying into money (although she didn't suppose she could blame her husband for his father losing his head), of the newcomer removing the useful books from the library because they do not go well with the delicately designed décor... but also of the lower orders like the maid who when asked if she remembers nothing she was taught, answers "Not to scratch my arse in public?".

The small supporting cast - primarily of women - are all strong. The faithful, jealous Jeanette, incapable of knowing how much she is loved. The guest appearance from the earthy, disappointed, but equally strong-willed Marie Paradis - first woman to reach the summit (although not necessarily entirely of her own volition). The English-speaking Welsh-girl who finally inspires the assent. Madame Couttet of the Union Hotel.

The majority of the men by contrast are backgrounders, weak-willed or selfish, poets or philosophers. Thinkers, while the women do.

The episodes are simply told, relying on dialogue and thought with few passages of pure description. The majesty of the Alps is woven in, but not dwelt upon. It is a light touch, well-crafted.

A short book at under 150 pages, it is one to read at a sitting ~ and a delight from start to finish.

It is also tantalising enough to make me want to seek out d'Angeville's own account of the climb itself.

If this sort of book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Hilary Spurling's La Grande Thérèse.

Our thanks to the author for sending us this book.

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