Dark historical fiction set in fourteenth century France, A Mortal Glamour tells the tale of one turbulent year in the life of a convent. Although A Mortal Glamour was originally published in 1985, this new edition--published by Juno Books with wonderful new cover art--includes over twenty-five thousand words cut from the first edition.
Young, headstrong Seur Aungelique (nobly born into the d'Ybert family) enters la Tres Saunte Annunciacion convent rather than marry the man chosen by her father. Stifled by the Rule of Order, Aungelique becomes increasingly frustrated with convent life after the introduction of a strict young superior. Fleeing under cover of night, she takes refuge with Comtesse Orienne, the most accomplished courtesan in France. Though openly admitting her desire to receive tutelage from the Comtesse, Aungelique also seems to have an ulterior motive: to meet her true love Pierre Fornault (Duc de Parcignonne), who she knows to be a patron of Comtesse Orienne. Though she is returned to the convent before she has the chance to commit any real sins of the flesh, Aungelique's appetite for lust has been whetted, an appetite that soon becomes irrepressible.
After her return to the convent, Aungelique begins to experience nightly visitations accompanied by loud moans of pleasure and pain from her cell. No penance, it seems, can relieve her of these visitations: neither performing vigils nor fasting helps and, indeed, scourging seems to exacerbate the problem. Whether demonic or no, the visitations are contagious and soon other sisters, a priest, and even a soldier stationed at the convent are affected. As the convent falls prey to otherworldly chaos, it is left to languish and questions begin to multiply.
The novel's backdrop is one of desperate, turbulent times. Europe is still cowed with fear of the Black Death. France and England are embroiled in what would later be known as the Hundred Years' War. And, with Pope Urban VI reigning in Rome and Pope Clement VII reigning in Avignon, the Church is divided and distrust is rampant.
Tied to what seems to be the author's intended commentary about women's status (or lack thereof) at that time, what is most horrific about the story is the lack of action by the Church in Avignon. As Père Guibert, the priest tasked with shepherding the convent's inhabitants, explains the situation most succinctly:
I pray that it is only the perfidy of women that must be corrected and not the incursion of Hell. The Pope has recently warned that the forces of Rome are growing stronger and seek to undermine the proper authority of Avignon and the French throne. To have demons present would weaken his assertion that it is Avignon that is the right. It might be thought that these nuns were acting on behalf of Roman interests, that the women entertain Roman lovers and for that seek to cast doubt upon the sanctity of Avignon. (212)
The Church, it seems, would rather lose dozens of innocent souls than risk a loss of power.
A Mortal Glamour is a compelling read. Though set in a different era, it is similar to Joanne Harris' Holy Fools and will appeal to readers who enjoyed that novel.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is best known as creator of the vampire Count Saint-Germain. She's written twenty Saint-Germain books and a total of sixty-three novels in her long career.