NOT TO BE MISSED
"La reine Antilope", a novel by Christel MOUCHARD
Paris: Robert Laffont, 2001. (409p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
La reine Antilope by French writer Christel Mouchard is definitely a good read. It is full of twists and turns and it comes complete with a fascinating plot, plenty of excitement, a protagonist who possesses a lot of stamina and a supporting cast of characters larger than life. The action takes place in the heart of Africa during the second half of the 19th century and the main character's journey across the continent is reminiscent of the peregrinations of the famous explorers of the time. There is a big difference though, the central character is not your legendary tough guy but an English woman with a stiff upper lip and seemingly, without the necessary attributes to survive long enough in the wild to tell the tale of her exploits. However, against all expectations, she does.
The story begins in England as the young and prudish Emma Tobermory learns that her elderly husband has disappeared in Africa where he was establishing a new Missionary Centre. As a devoted Christian, a dutiful wife and an active contributor to her husband's missionary work, she decides to make the journey to Zanzibar in order to organise a search party and to bring Monsignor Tobermory back to civilisation. However, when she arrives in the port city nothing goes according to plan. Colonel Owen, who represents the Crown, looks upon her with great displeasure, especially when she mentions her intention to lead the search party herself. To him, roaming the African interior is not an activity suited to an English lady nor, indeed, to any woman.
Thus begins a rocky road for Mrs Tobermory who is not long in discovering even worse news: her husband was not the man she thought he was. The stern preacher, while having scolded his English parishioners from the pulpit and admonished his young wife about engaging in trivial pleasures, had lived by a different set of rules during his African sojourns: a blond child and heaps of Bibles stacked in a storeroom were proof of Mgr Tobermory's double-life. Faced with this irrecusable evidence, Mrs Tobermory's determination to take an active part in her husband's rescue wanes by the day: yet an unforeseeable chain of events puts her back on the road to adventure. Upon leaving Zanzibar for a short excursion, she finds herself embarked on an expedition that would last many years.
Mgr Tobermory's fate is eventually revealed but, by the time it is, it is no longer the search for a lost missionary that drives the narration. It is rather his puritanical wife's slow metamorphosis that captivates the reader: her slow awakening to the pleasures of the senses and her journey of discovery of self and others. When she reaches the stone buildings of the Great Zimbabwe, Emma Tobermory is no longer a frumpy and austere missionary's wife, but an outgoing and liberated female adventurer.
While Mrs Tobermory pushes the narration forward relentlessly, the many characters surrounding her allow incursions into the continent's history, its inhabitants and their relationship to Europe. It does not take very long for the heroine to realise that her mental picture of her husband's fellow émigrés is wide of the mark. By and large they are nothing but a mob of outcasts who left the comfort of England in disgrace. The promiscuous past of Colonel Owen's wife prevents the now elderly couple from returning to England; the young Lieutenant Jellicoe had to leave his family hastily after an affair with his sisters' governess: one that ended up with the tragic death of the young lady at the hands of an abortionist; Mr Smith Mgr Tobermory's right-hand man is a patricide saved from retribution by her husband ten years earlier and, Almah, the African woman who bore her husband's child, is running a brothel set up with Church monies.
Stunned by the discovery of a universe so different from the one depicted by her husband in his letters, Mrs Tobermory begins her African sojourn by spending a month in a daze in the benevolent care of Mrs Owen; but as time goes by, the true nature of the people around her touches her soul and she realises that they are far from a nasty bunch of misfits randomly assembled in this faraway corner of the world. Mrs Owen turns out to be a very friendly and attentive hostess who lost her reputation, but nothing of her charm and gentleness; Jellicoe is a handsome young man with much regret about his cowardly attitude towards his mistress; Mr Smith, proves to be a trustworthy travelling companion, and even Almah, who encapsulates so vividly her husband's treachery, manages to seduce her by her strong sense of loyalty, honour and duty.
Christel Mouchard's plot and characters are imaginary, but they borrow cleverly from history and geography. Names and characters are often oblique references to real locations and historical myths. This adds to the impression that fiction is only one step away from "real" life. One visualises easily the foggy windows and the ambiance of the Tobermory's mansion in Haven-on-Wye, a literary twin city of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. Saragon, Mgr Tobermory's friend, turned arch-enemy, is a phenomenal erudite and a master of disguise, a character inspired by the Hungarian Orientalist and traveller Vámbéry Ármin, who mastered many languages to perfection and managed to travel incognito across Iran under the name of Reshit Efendi, later publishing his Travels in Central Asia in 1864.
Similarly it is impossible not to think of Stanley's famous words addressed to Livingstone when one reads: "When the young woman eventually stepped out of the canoe, preceded by a large painted metal trunk, the unknown man walked towards her: 'Mrs Tobermory, I presume...'. The young woman took a step back and lowered her chin..." (p.13). Without mentioning the secondary character, Agnès Moffat, (p.453) the figure of Livingstone looms large over Mgr Tobermory's life- story: both men arrived in Africa in the 1840s, gained a tremendous popularity in England, became somewhat frustrated with missionary work, disappeared into the wildness and became obsessed with discovering the source of the Nile. But the aim of Christel Mouchard is not to rehearse the myths surrounding the lives of male explorers. It is rather to give a voice to unknown "women adventurers in crinoline" : and she does.
Mrs Tobermory borrows many features of long-lost female travellers of the 19th century. Her rigid, narrow and condescending outlook on others at the beginning of the story is somewhat reminiscent of Ida Pfeiffer's austere character; her determination to lead her expedition in spite of British official rebuke reflects Mary Sheldon's argument with officialdom and her epic encounter with the Sultan of Zanzibar. So too is her pride in being called "The Antelope Queen" by her porters and village folk. As for her seemingly unlimited wealth that allows her to finance large expeditions, it is reminiscent of Alexine Tinne who set forth across the Sahara with a party of two hundred people, one hundred animals and tons of material. But as time goes by, Emma Tobermory also learns to become a discreet explorer, travelling light like Mary H. Kingsley who blended with her surroundings and was fascinated by the fauna, the vegetation and the many people she came across.
In a lively review of the novel, Laurent Seksik wrote: "this novel is mainly the story of disenchanted love; it is Emma Bovary in exile. But the destiny of this woman reveals unsuspected subtleties and finesse. Christel Mouchard's recipe for success is akin to the great Chefs' well-guarded secrets; it ensures that her Reine Antilope is spiced with the right type of ingredients."  A great novel very much worth reading.
1. Christel Mouchard. "Aventurières en crinoline". Paris: Seuil, 1987.
2. Laurent Seksik. "Mme Bovary en exil". "L'Express", 19 avril 2001. [http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/livre/la-reine-antilope_797628.html Sighted May 9, 2010].
3. Page numbers refer to the edition "J'ai Lu", 2003. Christel Mouchard's webpage at the editions Robert Laffont: [http://www.laffont.fr/livre.asp?code=2-221-09194-9 Sighted May 16, 2010]
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities