Years ago, I got into “fantasies of manners” at about the same time as I was going through a big Revolutionary France phase. When I heard about Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove (1993) — a fantasy set in that time period, and which won the Mythopoeic Award for 1994 — it sounded like the perfect book for me. I could never find it in the used bookstores, though. (I did, before I successfully committed the title to memory, buy two different other books thinking they might be it.) The rise of e-books has fortunately made it possible for us to track down some of our elusive great white whales, or in this case, our porcelain doves.
I don’t know what gave me the idea The Porcelain Dove would be a light, frothy novel. It is not. It is also, contrary to what you might expect, not a novel of court intrigue; when the characters go to court, it is dealt with only briefly. Nor does it focus on the Revolution as much as one might anticipate. If you are looking for lots of courtly or revolutionary content, Paula Volsky’s Illusion has more of both of these. If anything, The Porcelain Dove is a sort of gothic fairy tale, revolving around a woman stuck in a house filled with nasty secrets.
Berthe Duvet is the loyal, sensible lady’s maid to a noblewoman, Adele. She follows her mistress first to convent school and then, upon Adele’s marriage to a duke, to the estate of Beauxprés. The first half of the novel contains little fantasy, simply narrating the events of the noble family’s lives and those of their servants. It’s a slow start, and the mannered writing style will also not be for everyone.
Gradually, the ugliness at the heart of Beauxprés is revealed to the reader. I started out thinking, OK, this family is kind of vapid. Then it was OK, they’re vapid bigots. Then, OK, they’re vapid bigots, and several of them are abusers and rapists. Then a curse falls upon Beauxprés and the family’s fortunes begin to decline. The curse has its roots in the crimes of a depraved ancestor (he’s based on a horrific real-life figure, and the description of his acts is extremely upsetting to read). Berthe stays on, even when most people would nope out; she’s devoted to her mistress, and besides, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
To break the curse, someone will need to embark on a quest to find the mysterious Porcelain Dove. That someone is not Berthe. Her role is to try to keep everyone at Beauxprés alive, through increasingly bad conditions, until the curse can be broken.
Essentially, we end up with a book that’s roughly half conversations with unpleasant people, and half trauma. It’s strangely compelling, though, and kept me reading it as doggedly as Berthe persisted in serving Adele. There are some fairy-tale elements threaded throughout. Some are overt; Beauxprés has a room dedicated to the magical treasures featured in various classic tales. Others are more subtle. There are plotlines that echo Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty, for example, and a nod to every story in which three siblings in turn set off on an adventure.
I found The Porcelain Dove disappointing overall. There are too few likeable characters, the pace is too slow for long stretches, and the curse doesn’t make much sense if you look at it too closely. Why wouldn’t the wizard have cursed the man who actually wronged him, rather than his descendants? Yet I can tell a great deal of work went into the novel, and as I mentioned above, it did keep me reading and curious what would happen next. I’m glad I finally had the chance to read it.