Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The General's Mistress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jo Graham. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The General’s Mistress invites readers into the world of Elzelina, a young woman living through the turmoil and excitement that followed the French Revolution. Based on the historical figure, Elza—sometimes known as Ida St. Elme, sometimes as Charles Van Aylde—follows her passions, her heart, and her own independent spirit as she flees her coldhearted husband in Holland for a series of fiery romances in Paris, Italy, and Germany. Her adventures take her into the arms of General Victor Moreau, a tryst with a coy and ambitious socialite, a turn as an acting troupe’s “second girl” and casual prostitute, a foray into fortune telling, and even a taste of war when she disguises herself as a man and joins the French military campaign in Germany. Throughout it all, she is haunted by two mysterious obsessions: General Michel Ney, a man she loves before ever meeting him, and the seductive, protective, and dangerous presence she senses in her dreams and in psychic trances: the Archangel Michael, the Warrior’s Saint—and the Angel of Death.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early in the novel, Elza leaves her cruel husband and their two sons in Holland. What did you think of her decision to leave her sons behind? Do you think it was the right decision? Did this choice make her less sympathetic? Or more?
2. Elza first discovers her psychic abilities when playing with a deck of tarot cards. Her cousin tells her that they answer a question in three parts: “The first one is the what, the second is how, and the third is why.” Elza asks if she will find a man she truly loves. She sees a redhaired man bearing a chalice, an illustration of Fortune’s Wheel, and an emperor in a chariot. How did these predictions play out over the course of the novel?
3. Elza travels in disguise as a man—specifically, as her late brother Charles. At first this seems to be little more than a game to placate her grief-addled mother, and a convenient way to avoid the dangers facing women who travel alone. But over the course of the novel Charles becomes an increasingly crucial part of Elza’s identity. Why do you think this is? In your opinion, is her “dual identity” a solution to a problem, or another problem in itself?
4. Throughout the novel Elza is visited by an otherworldly being, who gradually reveals himself to be the Archangel Michael. In Roman Catholic teachings, Michael is the Angel of Death and the fierce defender of the faithful against evil—including one’s own nature. How do you interpret his role in Elza’s life?
5. In your opinion, what does the Archangel Michael want from Elza, and why has he chosen her to see him?
6. Elza seems disinterested in politics and the recent French Revolution when she is first introduced. How did her awareness of and interest in the events unfolding around her change over the course of the novel?
7. Elza’s sexual adventures often seem to give her more than just physical pleasure: with each new lover she plays a different role and explores a different aspect of herself. Which of these “versions” of Elza did you find most appealing, and which the least?
8. There is a theme of duality running through this novel: double identities, conflicting forces of light and dark, matched pairs. Was there any instance of duality that struck you as particularly surprising, or insightful? Do you agree with Elza’s description of herself as “courtesan and knight companion both,” both roles being equally valuable?
9. Michel Ney also exhibits contradicting traits. He is gentle in person and violent on the battlefield, a kind and romantic soul who secretly fantasizes about rape and murder. Did these dark aspects of his nature make it difficult for you to see him as a romantic figure? Would you have preferred Elza’s true love to be more heroic, in the traditional sense?
10. Discuss the role of sex in the novel. Were the steamy segments a diversion from the plot or did Elza’s sexual encounters add something to her story and development as a character—intertwined with her life outside the bedroom?
11. Elzelina is representative of many women in the Napoleonic Era: women who lived on the margins of society, travelling with soldiers and drama troupes, often working as prostitutes. Do you think the author succeeds in giving a voice to these women and some insight into their lives? How has the novel changed your perception of the women of this era?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Jo Graham drew inspiration for The General’s Mistress from the memoirs of the real Elzelina, published under the name Ida Saint-Elme as Memoirs of a Contemporary. Find a copy at your local library or bookstore and read passages aloud at your book club discussion. How does it compare to The General’s Mistress?
2. To learn more about the real Ney, Moreau, and Napoleon, visit: www.napoleon-series.org. Be sure to read the article “Four Men and a Woman,” which Jo Graham quotes in her author’s note.
3. The Campaigns of Napoleon is a multipart documentary on the Napoleonic Wars. Watch the first installment with your book club members to learn more about the battles described in The General’s Mistress.
A Conversation with Jo Graham
How did you first learn about Elzelina and what drew you to her story?
Actually, it was Michel I found first, when I was fifteen. I applied myself to learning everything I could about him, and that was why four years later I found Elza’s memoirs in the original French in my university library rare books collection. I knew I would write her story then, and I began it in 1992. Elza is unique, sensual, brilliant, clever, brave, and ultimately strong as mountains. Her story was irresistible.
What resources did you use in researching her life and this era in European history?
I’ve been researching this story for twenty-nine years now, so it’s hard to pick out a few references, as I’ve probably literally used nine hundred or a thousand sources. The ultimate, invaluable one is Elza’s own Memoirs of a Contemporary, particularly the unabridged French edition, as the English one is a Victorian translation and cuts a great deal and cleans up a great deal more!
The real Michel Ney does in fact sound like a romantic hero: warrior, patriot, and called “the bravest of the brave” by no less than Napoleon Bonaparte. It must have been a pleasure to flesh him out on the page. Do you think the real Elza felt as passionately for the real Ney as “your Elza” does?
Oh yes! I’m certain she did. She makes it very clear in her memoirs that he was the love of her life. At one point she says of going to join him in the field, “I went from Florence to Perpignan as one goes from Paris to Versailles. In love, one is like the gods of Homer—in two jumps one could go to the ends of the earth,” and “Oh the happiness given to me by this great man, full of unspeakable delights! Our hearts, separated for a long time by great distances, had ceased at nothing, tasting pleasure with like convictions, one with our equal communing of emotions. New fears could not suspend our enchantment, and we seized it as sort of a prize for victory.”
What inspired the inclusion of the Archangel Michael in Elza’s story?
Michael has been a character in my books before, in Black Ships and Hand of Isis, and it seemed natural for him to return in this one.
Were you already familiar with the mythology of St. Michael, or did you do some biblical research as well?
I was pretty much already familiar, because as I said I’d written him twice before. I was fairly certain of where I was going. It can be risky for a novelist to turn historical figures into characters in her story, particularly when they are as well known as Napoleon.
Were you hesitant to include him in the novel, or did you always know he’d play a role?
I always knew he’d be in the book. His scenes in Elza’s memoirs are so memorable and distinctive that I was certain those scenes needed to be included. I kind of have a soapbox about this—Napoleon is portrayed horribly inaccurately in popular media, either as a strange, short, ranting man who is a figure of fun, or as some early version of Hitler. Neither of these things is remotely true! He was charming, charismatic, and had a talent for inspiring devotion in those who knew him. It’s very strange that in the US we’ve forgotten that the United States was Napoleon’s ally, not his enemy, and that at the time we were one of the few other nations who embraced ideas like the separation of church and state and free public education. Napoleon is absolutely not a villain in my books.
There are some pretty steamy sex scenes in this book! Is it difficult to write effectively about sex? Do you ever make yourself blush? Are there family members or friends whom you hope won’t read those sections?
I never blush! Actually, those are some of my favorite parts to write, both because I enjoy writing steam and because it gives insights into the characters that you wouldn’t get any other way. You literally get them naked, without the things they pretend to most of the time.
How closely connected do you think Elza’s development as a character is to her sexual exploits?
Very closely. As Michael says to her at one point, this is how she understands the world. This is the lens through which she perceives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Each experience, good and bad, makes her more the person she is able to be. The General’s Mistress is about becoming, about how Elza begins her journey. It’s not the end of the journey. In this book she learns about power, but she’s not yet grown into her own. It’s coming, and Michel, like Victor, is a catalyst for that. Only unlike Victor, he is someone who can walk along the path with her, travel on a parallel course and understand her completely.
The historical Michel Ney came to a sad end: condemned to death in 1815 by the new French government. The novel is dark enough that readers might expect it to encompass that event, adding yet more pathos to Elza’s life. Why did you decide to end it on a cheerier note, with the two lovers kissing in the snow?
We’ll get there! There is much more of Elza’s story to come in later books. This is the first pause, two lovers kissing in the snow, having found each other for the first time. This is new love, love not yet tested by the years and by pain. They have a long way to go before 1815!
You are unsparing in your depiction of Elza’s darker side: her pragmatic approach to prostitution, her lack of attachment to her children, and even her proclivity toward violence. Did you have to resist a temptation to soften her up a bit and make her a more traditional, morally upright romantic heroine?
I had to resist the lure of cash! The General’s Mistress was turned down by four editors before it was bought by the wonderful Abby Zidle of Gallery Books—all four times because the editors hated Elza. The temptation was to make her into a more traditional heroine in order to sell the book. But I couldn’t do that. Elza is who she is, and she’s a real person. I have to write her as I see her, to tell her story with the same lack of apology and with the same boldness and lack of shame as she tells it herself. This is who she is, and turning her into a blushing ingénue would be awful. Yes, absolutely Elza has a darker side. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t also be a suitable vessel for Michael. Sex and death are opposite sides of the same coin. Birth is blood and danger, beginnings encompass the potential of endings, and endings hold the seeds of beginnings. Elza belongs to that great Mystery, just as Gull did in my book Black Ships. It’s expressed differently in the eighteenth century than in the Bronze Age, but it’s the same Mystery. She always serves the same Mystery.
Elza’s friend Lisette commits suicide, but we’re not told why or what had happened to her. Did you intentionally leave that backstory vague—and what did happen?
No, actually that was cut for length! I needed to remove 14,000 words in order to bring the length down to something reasonable for a trade paperback. The backstory with Lisette was less necessary than a lot of other things, so it went. In the original version there was more of her drug habit and her violent relationship with her boyfriend. I don’t think she actually intended to kill herself this time—I think her overdose was a bid for attention, a cry for help as the cliché goes today, but no one saved her.
You’ve set other novels in historic epochs as well: the reign of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra’s Egypt, and ancient Troy. Where (and when) do you think you’ll go next?
Next up is the second book about Elza, covering 1800–1805, in which Elza takes on a new task and a new adventure. Tentatively titled The Emperor’s Companion, needless to say Napoleon is back! When Victor Moreau is arrested for treason (and he is guilty!) Elza is blackmailed by the Minister of Police into working as his agent to spy on her former friends and associates, including Therese Tallien. But when this blackmail requires her to betray Josephine, Elza has a choice to make—her life, or to be true to the deepest part of herself!