Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts

Over the New Year's weekend, I went into a used bookstore on the coast and spotted A Rose for Virtue, a 1971 historical novel by Norah Lofts, waiting patiently on the shelf. I hadn't heard of this novel before, so I was delighted to pick it up and find that it was about Hortense, daughter of Josephine Bonaparte and stepdaughter (and sister-in-law) to Napoleon. I've been rather interested in Josephine and her circle ever since I read Sandra Gulland's Josephine B. trilogy.

A Rose for Virtue (named for a school prize that gets destroyed inadvertently when Hortense wears it) follows Hortense from the time of her mother and stepfather's marriage to Hortense's departure from Paris following Napoleon's final downfall. It has one of the most jaw-breaking subtitles I've seen in modern fiction: "The Very Private Life of Hortense, Stepdaughter of Napoleon I, mother of Napoleon III."

Hortense is an appealing heroine, resilient, un-self-pitying, and resourceful without ever becoming that dreaded creature of historical fiction, the Mary Sue. As the narrator, she frankly admits that she lacks her mother's easy charm, and she can be stubborn, especially when her estranged husband, Louis, is concerned. She can laugh at herself, and she has a rare gift for facing facts.

Lofts does a good job with the other characters as well. Josephine is particularly well done, and there are some nice sketches of life among the Bonapartes, one of the highlights being a particularly fractious family dinner that ends with Hortense's baby son peeing on the tablecloth.

This isn't an action-packed novel; the big events, of course, occur mostly out of Hortense's range of vision. Nonetheless, Lofts is good at evoking the emotions caused by these events, as when Hortense, urging Napoleon to flee following his return from Waterloo, gets this succinct reply: "My dear, it no longer matters."

My only real disappointment with the book was its ending. Artistically, it works, but it would have been good to see what Hortense made of her later life. As the book doesn't have an afterword--I suppose they weren't in style at the time--the reader wanting more information has to go elsewhere. And the reader will likely want this information, for Lofts makes our stay in Hortense's company a congenial one.

11 comments:

Kailana said...

Oh, I am reading the Josephine B. trilogy right now, and this looks interesting! I wonder if it will ever get rereleased...

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, I loved "A Rose for Virtue;" I read it as a teenager. It is a very authentic but vibrant portrayal of Napoleon, Josephine, Hortense, Louis Bonaparte and all the Bonaparte clan. It starts out at Madame Campan's school where they had a portrait of Marie-Antoinette behind the Declaration of the Rights of Man - hilarious.

Cinderella said...

Aha, how happy I was to see this review! Norah Lofts is my favorite writer, and "A Rose for Virtue" is one of her best books. You're right that it should have an afterword. After reading it, I raced to an encyclopedia to find out what happened to Hortense.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Kailana, Tempus Publishing has three of her books being re-released, but not this one--but maybe there's hope!

Elena, I loved that opening chapter.

Cinderella, glad you liked the review! What other favorites do you have of her?

Cinderella said...

Well, "The King's Pleasure" (about Katharine of Aragon) has a special place in my heart because it helped inspire my interest in history and royalty.

Others that stand out in my mind (although it's been a while since I read some of them): Jassy, Knight's Acre, Lovers All Untrue, To See a Fine Lady.

Anonymous said...

I am the grandaughter of Norah Lofts, I still reside in the UK, and am really glad that so many of you find the time and enjoy her books! I have fortunately inherited her flair for putting pen to paper, but a different genre completely - childrens books!

Julie Barker
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK

Sylvia said...

Great site! And some new books to find on medieval life. Please decide if this is acceptable - I belong to a forum on Norah Lofts at GoodReads, and we members are obsessed with finding a published map from 40 or 50 years ago in one of NL's House books. Seeing her granddaughter's comments here, we have hopes that she might let us know how we can find that map of Layer Wood and Baildon, or if possibly other fans are aware of it. Thank you for/if allowing this message. Sylvia

sema4dogz said...

I am one of the Goodreads Norah Lofts community mentioned by Sylvia, and I would like to second her wish that we could access some info regarding the map of Layer .If it is not possible, so be it it of course .We will still remain devotees!
How lovely to know her grandaughter is an author too

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sylvia, you and sema4dogz might want to try to contact Touchstone, the publisher that's reissuing some of Norah Lofts' books, to see if they help you in your search.

Sylvia said...

Thank you for your suggestion, Susan. I had contacted Doubleday, but not Touchstone. We've also contacted the museum and library in Bury St. Edmond's. A great Lofts read is her "House" trilogy of The Town House, The House at Old Vine, and The House at Sunset. She takes you on an extra-ordinary time travel from 1400 to the 1900s. I believe all three of those books have been republished, possibly by Touchstone.

Sylvia said...

I hope it is acceptable for me to invite all of you here, including Susan, to also join the Norah Lofts Forum on Goodreads. We discuss all of her books, and are currently working on a Layer Wood map project. There is no competition between these sites, and we would love to hear all of your opinions. Happy Reading!