CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 11 . . . . November 11, 2011
The Hangman in the Mirror.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2011.
229 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-356-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-357-4 (hc.).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
I have compromised my dignity already by coming to see you at all. I would humiliate myself to end it, and what is worse, humiliate my husband. When something is set in motion, Francoise, it must run its course. Authority, property, law, these are real things, which it is a duty to preserve. And when offended, remedies must be sought, and punishment is now the remedy. Once the process is begun, there is no end, no help for it."
The Hangman in the Mirror, based on historic fact, is a page-turner on the themes of class distinction, women's friendship, and jealousy. The play on which it is based, entitled The Hanging of Françoise Laurent, comes from an actual 1751 Montreal court case which is summarized in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Kate Cayley notes in her Acknowledgements that the play was co created by herself and actors Sarah Cormier, Zach Fraser and Kiersten Tough.
The title of the novel comes from a game in which the central character, Françoise Laurent, tells her young women friends that she has a mirror which will show a young girl her future husband's face on Midsummer's Eve. Amusement is infrequent in 15-year-old Françoise's life; she is barely surviving. Her parents, a French soldier stationed in New France, and her mother, a washerwoman from the streets of Paris, drink and gamble to bear their poverty and are gradually succumbing to alcoholism. Françoise loves her parents but sees their flaws clearly. She hates laundry, dirty work involving skin damage from harsh soap, and hopes for a better future.
When Françoise goes to market to beg stale bread from a baker, she sees a well dressed lady's maid from a merchant's household and wishes she were her. She also steals some vegetables, and in a chase and confrontation, both she and the youth pursuing her are slightly injured. Both encounters become important later in the story.
When an epidemic takes away Françoise’s parents, and also the lady's maid, Françoise is recommended by her father's superior officer to work in the Pommereau household. Kindly neighbours help her make herself presentable, and she secures the position. It seems as if her dreams have come true.
The end of one set of troubles, however, is the beginning of another. Although Françoise no longer has to fight physically for her daily bread, she has not shed the habits of poverty and deprivation. Though needy, Françoise has a chip on her shoulder. Later in the novel, when she has time for introspection, she reflects: "[I had] something in me that must perversely throw away the good fortune that life had offered me, something in me that must throw away life itself." Her aggressiveness antagonizes the other Pommereau servants, who begin looking for a way to take her down, and they find one.
The developing relationship between Mme Pommereau and Françoise will interest readers. Françoise finds it ridiculous that a grown woman needs help in dressing, yet she is fascinated by the elaborate clothing and possessions of this wealthy woman. She is particularly fascinated by a pair of black silk gloves. They are completely impractical, so tight that the wearer cannot make a fist, but they mould the hands into an attractive shape. Beautiful and luxurious, they literally tie a woman's hands and are a fitting symbol of Mme Pommereau's situation.
Born in rural France into a happy home, Mme Pommereau was urged by her parents to marry her husband, sight unseen, because, at age 21, she was considered an old maid. Thirty five when Françoise comes into her household, Mme Pommereau has lost three children and the attention of her husband. She dislikes life in New France, but, with Françoise by her side, she ventures out of her comfort zone and familiarizes herself to some extent with Montreal. But when Françoise gets in conflict with the law, she refuses to jeopardize her status by intervening on the younger woman's behalf.
The novel is of the school of gritty realism. Bloody sheets from childbirths gone wrong, dangerous winter weather in which frozen birds fall dead from the sky, and the entertainment provided by public hangings are just three examples of the harshness of life in mid 18th century New France. In a discussion with Françoise, Mme Pommereau tells her that, "if a woman is condemned to death by hanging, she must marry the hangman. That will save her life... Or if there is no hangman at the time of her sentence, she must persuade a man to become the hangman and to marry her, and that will also save her...It is the law."
The final fifty pages, though as beautifully written as the rest of the novel, would seem contrived if one did not know that the novel was based on historic fact. Enforced leisure allows Françoise to get to know herself better and enables her to operate from emotional intelligence and genuine feeling rather than force and confrontation. She vows that she will "make a haven" for her rescuer, to "make up to him" the sacrifice he makes on her behalf.
Cayley ends her novel where the historical record ends. In her “Historical Note,” she explains that she worked from the few existing facts and imagined the rest. The conclusion is suitably dramatic for a play, but, having imagined so much already, Cayley could have constructed a future for Françoise. Admittedly, this wish may be the reaction of a reader who enjoyed the novel and hates to have it end.
Ruth Latta's current work in progress is an historical novel with the working title, The Old Love and the New Love.
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