Forgotten favourites - A rake's progress

A Gentleman of France

Stanley J Weyman <em>Wildside Press, 316pp, £15.45</em>

ISBN 1592243975

This is the most battered book on my shelves. It was read frequently during my early teenage years, and has survived every cull since. Stanley J Weyman was a popular novelist in the first half of the 20th century, but most people under the age of 50 have never heard of him.

A Gentleman of France tells the story of Gaston de Marsac, an impoverished Frenchman seeking to repair his fortunes on the fringes of the court, in the period leading up to the reign of Henri Quatre. The major characters of the period are all here: Henry of Navarre, the Duke de Guise, Sully before he became Sully. There are duels to rival anything Dumas ever wrote, more twists and turns to the plot than in any Ruth Rendell, more pace than in any Scott or Buchan. However, it is not just in the narrative that the strength of this book lies.

What lingers in the mind long after the satisfying conclusion (in which the villains are defeated and the virtuous rewarded) is the vivid picture of French life at the end of the 16th century: the stark contrast between the kennels of the poor and the sumptuous splendour of the court; the joyless world of those caught in between; the flight from the plague (there is a memorable passage describing a woman living in her stranded coach, her family and servants dead from the horrible disease); the twilight existence of the petty adventurer; the harassed landlords in inns where the fare was largely bread and wine, and fights between travellers the norm; the dark menace of a corrupt and scheming priest in an age of bigotry and intolerance and a powerful church; the rolling French countryside populated by toiling peasants and those going about their business on horseback, ever at risk from marauders and brigands.

Here is an age of exquisite courtesies and brutal punishments, of deference to the rich and contempt towards the poor, of complex intrigue and simple honesty, of rampant ambition and struggles to survive. Weyman recreates all this so vividly that it is sometimes surprising to look up from a page and realise that you are still in the 21st century.

De Marsac falls in love with a girl who is rich, proud and a ward of the powerful Duke of Turennes. Inevitably, she dismisses him as an upstart and an adventurer. Meanwhile, he has allied himself with Henry of Navarre, to whom he will eventually bring the first news of the death of the King, and who uses him to further his own cause. The tale of how De Marsac wins the girl and Navarre the throne is a lengthy one, which I first read by torchlight under my eiderdown after lights out at Bath Convent. One senses that the book is longer than most of this author's others because he enjoyed writing it so much.

Weyman produced a large number of novels, many of them set in or around this period of French history. His values are the old ones of honour, modesty and valour beating the odds - yet strangely, the language does not appear dated and the book is as readable today as it was when first published.

Ann Widdecombe's novel Father Figure will be published in January (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Would you buy a car that looked like this?