11/24/14

Cécile: Gates of Gold

Author: Mary Casanova

Illustrator: Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Rileaux and the Palace of Versailles, France, 1711

Plot

Cécile is a poor peasant living in the French countryside. Her father is a doctor, but is rarely paid for his services, since so many of his patients are destitute as well. Despite his medical expertise, Cécile's mother died two years ago from pneumonia. 

One day when she's walking in the woods, Cécile comes across a wounded woman. She fetches her father, and the two get the woman's dislocated shoulder back in place. She recovers quickly once that's done, and asks how she can repay them. After all, she is sister-in-law to the king. Cécile's father asks for  her to be taken back to the palace at Versailles as a courtesan, so she can escape the life of a peasant. The noblewoman, who goes by Madame, agrees.

Upon entering the golden gates of Versailles, Cécile quickly learns that palace life is worlds apart from peasant life. She's to care for Madame's six spaniel dogs, while back in her village people would eat dogs if food was scarce enough.though she's grateful to not want for food or clothing or comfort, Cécile is on edge,worried about making a mistake and being sent back...or imprisoned. Then she earns that her father used to be a doctor for the royals, but was arrested and held in the Bastille for a year and a half before being banished from the palace, all for daring to speak his mind about what the best treatments would be, whether or not it was in fashion (for example, he thinks bloodletting is nonsense, and washes his hands often). 

Then Cécile rceives a terrible letter from the village priest. Her father came down with smallpox and died. When Madame finds out, she commiserates with Cécile. She lost her husband (the king's brother) a decade ago, and knows how painful it is when a loved one dies. In her grief, Cécile finds the courage to ask about the banished doctor. Madame reveals that not only was he the same man as her father, but they knew each other, and recognized each other in the woods those many months ago. Her father had often butted heads with the lead physician, Dr. Fagon, and when Madame's husband suddenly became very ill, Cécile's father argued against bloodletting and even threw Dr. Fagon's medical instruments in the floor, saying he wouldn't let him murder the royal family. Madame also met Cécile's mother once and remembers her as pretty and kind (she was from a noble family that had lost its money), but of course she had to leave too when her husband was banished. Ten years ago. Cécile would have been two then. She was born at the palace. Through sharing their grief, the two grow closer, Cécile coming to think of Madame like a grandmother.

Then the wife of the heir to the throne comes down with a grave illness, and dies. Her husband soon follows. Dr. Fagon calls Cécile to an inquisition, accusing her of poisoning the pair. But another doctor objects, saying the autopsies found nothing inconsistent with measles. The king himself, in attendance, agrees and Cécile is freed from suspicion.  

And then the young princes, great-grandchildren to the king, are stricken. Dr. Fagon again resorts to bloodletting and the older boy, only six, dies. Cécile convinces the nursemaids that the same methods will kill the two-year-old, and the young women protect the boy by barricading themselves in a room with him, risking their own lives in doing so. Cécile holds him through the night. By morning, his fever is broken. Though the boy recovers, a month later Cécile is summoned, and told that someone must be punished for defying the court doctors. She is banished from Versailles.

But the king's wife, herself from humble beginnings, recognizes the bravery that saved the boy. She sends Cécile not back to her village, but to St. Cyr, a boarding school where she can learn and be able to rise above her peasant upbringing.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

The historical section contrasts the finery of King Louis XIV's court with the simple, often difficult life of a peasant. Children like Cécile didn't have much to look forward to, sometimes choosing the life of a nun or priest to escape the crushing poverty (although some orders take vows of poverty, they still have a better chance of getting food and having a place to stay than some more desperate peasants). Literacy wasn't wide-spread, and it wasn't until 1698 that schooling became compulsory. Education was provided by the church and including reading, writing, arithmetic, and catechism. Today, free public education is available for all, and many more people have access to comfortable lifestyles. Though France no longer has a king or queen, palaces like Versailles remain beautiful places to learn about history.

Misc

Dedicated to Kate Elise (the author's daughter). She also includes "grateful acknowledgement to Cindy Rogers, for joing me on a research trip to Versailles; Tamara England, for offering editorial insight and encouragement; Sally Wood, for assisting with historical research; my writers' group, for listening and responding; and my family, for being there every step of the journey." An author's note mentions that all the major events that happen in the book are hisorical fact, though the character of Cécile is made-up.

Madame is German, and scoffs at many customs of the French nobility, like painting their faces with white makeup, wearing heavy wigs, and rarely going outside because they fear they'll catch some sort of illness.

Cécile gets to know the king's great-grandchildren because they have to have the dogs visit them. The six-year-old even requests she dance with him at the Christmas ball (obviously, before he got sick).

Cécile notes that the princess gave birth with dozens of people watching and dies the same way: even her most private and painful moments are on display.

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