On Friday morning I was taken to a book group meeting by a friend who'd asked the others to read Liberty, my book about women and the French Revolution. The discussion was great - ranging from everything from the mystique of French women (and how the French in general love to be difficult) to the balance between state and sovereignity, and what happens when a vacuum is created (generally, if it's too violent a change, the status quo ante is quickly reasserted; the French revolution is a great example of this) and the Prague revolution of 1968 (witnessed, in fact lived through, by one of the group as a 21 year old).
I came out of the meeting feeling far friendlier towards Marie Antoinette than I have done before. I've generally found it hard to sympathise too much with her, viewing her as a spoilt, blinkered woman incapable of seeing past her own interests. That miserable David sketch of her on the way to the guillotine is too cruel, but it's only in the accounts of her last months that I've read her as beginning to be aware of what had taken place over the previous five years (five years! such a short time for everything you thought you knew to be destroyed). Now, writing that, I see I've been wanting to detect remorse in her, before I could forgive her - but what the others made me see on friday was how seeking that was utterly impossible. This was a woman brought up in a world where everything, including her understanding of religion, was shaped to reinforce her sense of herself at the centre and top of the world. There was no way she could have taken any path other than the one she chose, and this, finally, allowed me to empathise with her.
I was also riveted to speak to one of the women before the proper discussion started - as we feasted on the most delicious homemade ginger cake and blondies, an American type of cocoa-free brownies, something I haven't tasted since my teens - about how her book groups (she's in two) make her read books she'd otherwise avoid, but once read, would hate to have missed. She recommended Koetzee - someone whose books I stand in front of on bookshop shelves and tremble - and after her encouragement I'm determined to force myself to make difficult reading decisions and trust that the rewards will be worth it. It's what literature's there to do, after all - challenge one's world view, take one to new places - they can't just be comfortable ones. There is more to reading than Georgette Heyer.
But friday's biggest revelation wasn't anything to do with feminist history or the French revolution, or even any specific book chat; it was much more personal. First, it was wonderful to be around people who love and value books - and by extension, writers. They were choosing such a fascinating array of books for their upcoming meetings and I was hugely flattered to have been included on their list. Usually I find myself hating being the centre of attention - a disastrous event at the History Society of Peterhouse, Cambridge springs agonisingly to mind - and I deflect, desperately, wherever I can, but these women were so generous about how much they'd enjoyed my book - and I've been feeling so greatly in need of kindness like this - that the whole morning was a balm to my injured, anxious working soul. I went away feeling for the first time in months that perhaps I do have something to offer with my writing, and that deciding simply to throw in the towel might be premature. I also had a bag full of blondies.