Monday, October 1, 2012

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Set in 18th century (1700's) New France, The Hangman in the Mirror presents a fictionalized account of the true story of Francoise Laurent who was sentenced to hang for stealing from her employer, Madame Pommereau.

Told in the voice of Francoise, the story begins when she has just turned fifteen years old. Living in poverty with her father who is a soldier and her mother who is a washerwoman, Francoise must deal with both her parents who are drunk most of the time. She wishes for a better life and desperately wants to move up in Montreal society. When both her parents die during a measles epidemic, she refuses to take over her mother's washing business. Instead, a family friend, Mathilde goes to see her father's commander and forces him to write a letter of introduction for Francoise so that she can seek employment as a maid in the home of the wealthy Pommereaus.

Madame Pommereau agrees to take on Francoise, who leaves behind her impoverished past for the comfort of her employers home. But from the beginning things do not go well. Francoise is sharp and not likeable and she immediately gets off to a bad start with the other servants in the house. Gradually and with patience, Madame Pommereau trains Francoise to be her maid. They develop a sort of distant relationship but when Francoise becomes too familiar one day, Madame reminds her that she is a servant. This angers Francoise, who decides to get revenge. That revenge takes the form of stealing Madame's beautiful black silk gloves. Once her wounded feelings heal, Francoise decides to return the gloves but not soon enough. Her crime is discovered and when Madame Pommereau tells her husband he decides to press charges and have her tried. To make an example of Francoise in the new colony, she is sentenced to hang for the theft of a pair of gloves.

Now in prison, Francoise learns that the hangman has died and that no one has yet stepped forward for the position. One day a young man is moved to the cell beside her own. She learns from this man that he is a soldier who was imprisoned for fighting and killing a man in a duel. Francoise remembers what Madame once told her, about how a woman may escape being hanged. She forms a plan and begins to work it. Will she be able to save her neck from the noose?

Hangman in the Mirror from MovingStories.TV on Vimeo.

The Hangman in the Mirror is well written and is particularly adept at demonstrating the class divisions that existed in the colony of New France during the 1700's. This is especially well portrayed when Madame discovers that Francoise can read the Bible - an unusual skill for an uneducated maidservant of the time. Madame believes that teaching someone from Francoise's class to read is a great unkindness because it would cause that person to wish for a life they could not possibly have.
"Because to read is to imagine another life, a world elsewhere, is that not true? And for a girl, especially a servant girl, to read would surely mean to learn to imagine another life, and so be dissatisfied with how she must live and what she has been born into. Surely it could only lead to unhappiness, Francoise."
Madame feels that the lower classes should be happy with what they have and accept their lot in life, never aspiring to improve themselves. Reading might widen a person's view of the world but not give them the skills to attain a better life. This opinion, along with the waste of food and other basic amenities of life in the Pommereau's wealthy home, cause Francoise much disgust towards the wealthy class of New France.

Francoise's situation serves to demonstrate the severity of the justice system in New France - a system greatly lacking in mercy, especially towards the lower classes. Here was a young woman who stole an item from a family only for the reason of wanting something that was entirely her own and who had the intention of returning it. Authority, property and law are so important that an example must be made of a young woman by causing her to be hanged. At stake are the reputations of the Pommereaus - even if that means the death of Francoise. However, Madame Pommereau's disheveled appearance at Francoise's trial suggests that even she had no idea things would go this far and lead to Francoise being given a death sentence.

The character of Francoise Laurent is also well drawn; that of a willful, manipulative, young woman whom I found to be mostly unlikeable, despite the great injustice done to her by the Pommereau's. Without reading the synopsis of the book, most readers would expect Francoise to get herself into some kind of terrible predicament given her unruly temperament. The difficulty with creating such an unlikeable character is that the reader is unlikely to care much about what happens to Francoise. However, near the end of the novel, Cayley softens Laurent somewhat.
"I had meant to go on, but my voice caught in my throat. Because,  speaking all this, telling the best story I had ever told, I realized it was true. Whether speaking it made it true (for that is the strangeness of words) or whether speaking it made me know it to be true, I could not tell. But in that moment, I found I loved him. He was all I had left to love, and the force of it knocked the wind out of me so that I could not speak."
My only complaint about this book was the negative portrayal of ALL priests whenever they appeared in the book. Otherwise this is a good debut for Kate Cayley who was the writer-director for the play, The Hanging of Francoise Laurent. You can read a review of the play here.

From the Poetry Foundation website comes a copy of a poem written by Margaret Atwood, Marrying the Hangman, about Francoise Laurent.

You can read this entry from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography about Jean Corolere who saved Francoise Laurent from certain death.
Book Details:
The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley
Annick Press 2011
229 pp.

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