This two-volume romance chronicles the rise to power of Odo Valsecca during the intellectual and political tumult which preceded the French Revolution. During his childhood and early manhood, Odo comes in close contact with all the major factions—the peasantry, the clergy, the liberal freethinkers, and the nobility—which have a vital stake in maintaining or subverting the antiquated power structure based on rigid class distinctions and superstitious religious traditions. How Odo’s actions and ideals are shaped by these forces and the traditions that they represent is the focus of the novel. He comes to the throne with high ideals and expectations and the zeal of a reformer, only to discover that compassion and logic are no match for superstition and self-interest.
As a child reared in extreme poverty by peasants on his mother’s estate, Odo experiences at firsthand the brutality of the feudal system. He escapes the drudgery of this life by daydreaming; he feels a “melancholy kinship” with the suffering face of Saint Francis of Assisi painted on the chapel walls.
Once he is seen as a possible heir to his ailing cousin, the duke, Odo is brought to court and indulged in the luxuries of the ruling class. As the years pass, he grows increasingly comfortable with the superficial life of the aristocracy, a life which “made manners the highest morality, and conversation the chief end of man.” Although he retains a sense that society needs to be...
(The entire section is 608 words.)