Gothic Revolution: Madame Two Swords by Tanith Lee

Nestled somewhere between magical realism and alternate history, this slim novella shows Tanith Lee working with the vast store of information she amassed about the French Revolution. She used most of the material for her lone historical novel THE GODS ARE THIRSTY. In many ways, MADAME TWO SWORDS is like a darker sister to that novel.

Set in an imaginary French city under English rule, the nameless narrator finds a slim book of poetry and essays in a used bookstore. Stuffed inside of the book is the miniature portrait of the book’s author, with whom she falls in love with. Lucien de Ceppays is a stand-in for the very real Camille Desmoulins (and the subject of TGAT), the doomed pamphleteer of the French Revolution. De Ceppays is a poet and author of the treatise on human rights in this alternate city, which also had a monarchy-ousting revolution that in turn inspired a rampage of political terror. Lee uses a series of Gothic tropes—ranging from spectral occurrences to the coincidences that happen in such fiction—to introduce a theme that one does not find in much of Lee’s fiction.  Bryonic heroes, destitute heroines, mysterious crones are all in the service of a tale about the narrator’s awakening sense of Social Justice.

It’s all told in Lee’s trademark decadent, ominous prose, which creates an intriguing subgenre—woke goth? She manages to capture both the horrid employment conditions of women in the turn-of-century and the fickle nature of mob-led movements as acutely as she did in that epic historical novel.

I am in possession of a signed and illustrated (by Thomas Canty) copy of this novella, which has been reprinted by Immanion Press.