A consummate researcher, DeJean teases out this fascinating history by delving into boxed archival records, contained in 'sturdy dark cardboard and tied with dingy beige ribbons.' Yet, as in How Paris Became Paris, DeJean turns her astute eye not just to the story of two individual families but to the broader historical context of the time. In this way, reading The Queen’s Embroiderer is a bit like listening to a fascinating, erudite lecture or examining an elaborate piece of needlework.
Occasionally DeJean realizes that she is stretching the reader’s credulity with so much bad behaviour on all sides—ranging from insurance fraud and identity theft to sending children to be murdered—so, like any decent lawyer, she dives back into her documentation to produce evidence that all of this is real. The result is a convincing recreation of a feverish period in French history when lying and treachery were the most useful and acceptable tactics in the art of social climbing ... DeJean guides the reader sure-footedly through the labyrinth of financial and family law, low and high politicking and general skulduggery that characterised the era. Her storytelling skills, however, are less certain. Most notably, the narrative too often veers from one timeframe to another, leaving the reader disoriented, confused or frustrated. For all that, DeJean has written a fascinating and original book whose central importance is to have captured the turmoil, confusion and sometimes sheer wickedness that accompanied the formation of early modern capitalism.
The Queen's Embroiderer ... features guild-hopping, inheritance fraud, domestic abuse, eloping to England, sending toddlers to their deaths, locking the gates against the poor, and the occasional escape from a chain gang. There's an impressive depth of research — this is, as much as anything else, a mystery about the manipulation of record-keeping and identity — and it reveals an equally impressive depth of both determination and depravity in some of the family figures, but by the time she introduces John Law and the 1720 stock market crisis to provide a wider historical context, it's almost a footnote to the family disaster ... DeJean is so strapped for good news that in an attempt to scrape together a happy ending for anyone at all, she occasionally glosses over, say, the moral implications of why going to Haiti was good for business. A few survivors of the Chevrot and Magoulet debacles do manage to get out from their forefathers' shadows — and that there are so few loose ends in this two-century saga is a testament to DeJean's research (and a compelling argument for preserving historical records on a local scale, for that matter).
Though the fortunes of both families burst in the first stock market crisis, it is the story of star-crossed lovers Louise Magoulet and Louis Chevrot that takes center stage. Fighting their families, who view marriage as only a means to increasing status and fortune, they (especially Louise) suffer extremely tragic fates in their quest to be together. Though the narrative often gets bogged down in economic minutiae, the fascinating details of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Parisian fashion, politics, and feuds will reward persevering readers.
Unfortunately, most of the book concerns economics, which is not the author’s forte, and the title is misleading. Money controlled the drive of these two families, and many of them were liars, forgers, imposters, and abusers. The narrative is intermittently interesting but difficult to follow as the stories jump around in time and between families. Times were difficult, but these two families drove themselves to ruin by pure, unadulterated greed.