The Girl at the Lion d'Or

The Girl at the Lion d'Or

1st edition cover
Author Sebastian Faulks
Cover artist Paul Trouillebert, "Cattle Watering by a Lake with a Chateau Beyond"[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series The France Trilogy
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date
August 1989
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 253 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-09-173451-7 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 59049051

The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks, was the author's second novel. Set in the tiny French village of Janvilliers in 1936. Together with Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, it makes up Faulks' France Trilogy. The character Charles Hartmann is common to all three books.

Plot introduction

An unsigned prologue introduces the reader to 1930s France and sets-up the fiction that the novel tells the true story behind an actual newspaper report of the time. This is imagined as being a passionate adulterous love-affair between the book's two central characters with the nation's unstable political scene as its backdrop. The politics are rendered to us through the characters' every day conversation- they rely on newspapers for information- which means that the history lesson aspect of the book arises organically in the narrative.

Written in the third person using a conventional omniscient narrator the internal motivations and viewpoints of various characters are aired. The narrative tone is at times ironic and the author uses unfussy language in telling the tale with economy. The vast majority of the scenes in the novel are set indoors which gives it a domestic and claustrophobic feel. There are no descriptions of physical violence but there is trauma and angst while in the character of 'Mattlin' Faulks creates a villain with a truly vicious mentality. The mood is down beat- in fact mock Gothic in the Poe inspired sub-plot involving the renovation of the Manor House- and the book is shot through with mordant wit but there are also lighter moments of tenderness and near slapstick. On its publication, The Girl at the Lion d'Or was lauded in reviews for Faulks' ability to evoke a sense of time and place and for his adroitness in creating engaging characters.

Plot summary

A wet and dark winter night sees young and beautiful Anne Louvert arrive in Janvilliers from Paris to take up a lowly position at the village inn, 'The Lion d'Or'. She gets to know the staff- the formidable Madame Concierge, the drunken Cook, the sex-starved Porter- and to meet the mysterious Patron. Then there are the customers: the evil Mattlin and the sensitive Hartmann most prominent among them.

A generation older than she, the cultured, rich and married Hartmann begins an affair with Anne. She reveals her secrets, her fears and her hopes to him trusting in their mutual love. His wife, Christine, knows him better and in the end its no real contest for her to keep her husband and see off her latest rival. Although Faulks writes the love story with commitment, the nature of the novel determines that it can only end badly for Anne. An historical novel in which history is treated seriously, The Girl at the Lion d'Or is tragic drama and its real subject is France herself. A happy fairy-tale ending would be incongruous: it did not happen for the French Third Republic; therefore, it could not happen for Anne.

Anne's childhood has been blighted by the First World War. Her father was shot on a charge of mutiny while serving in the trenches at Verdun, and her mother, harassed and victimised because of his fate, driven to suicide. Anne endured a wandering, hand-to-mouth existence with her uncle Louvert, whose name she adopts.

Louvert, vainglorious and empty dispenser of fine sounding phrases- 'Courage is the only thing that counts'[2]-, joined a right wing revolutionary organisation with the aim of 'making France great again'[3] but deserted both Anne and France for a new life in America. Anne later invests her emotions in Hartmann and although devastated by his rejection, she does not allow it to destroy her. She intuitively turns away from suicide and the last line of the novel leads us to believe that she will, though there will be dark days ahead, overcome her situation. The battle of Verdun and the French army mutinies a year later were momentous events for the French nation. That the battle and a charge of mutiny played such a major part in Anne's personal history suggests a metaphorical link between her and France. The fact that the prologue to the narrative dedicates the story to Anne, 'an unknown girl'[4] rather than the 'important public'[4] figures of the time also indicates that the character represents something larger than an individual. The use of the adjective 'unknown', in the context of this novel, is loaded with meaning, as it evokes the Unknown Soldier.

By making Anne a homeless, friendless, orphaned young woman, Faulks is pushing the limits of melodrama in his wish to create a character who is the opposite of those in the male-dominated world of political power. She is the victim of political decisions and human spite but does not embrace victimhood. Instead she embodies most of the virtues and a certain defiance. More importantly she is vital: she makes decisions and acts on them. The polemic thrust of the book, backed-up by references to newspaper stories of political crises and scandal at home and mounting threat of war from abroad, is that the period's political leaders were, at best, inert.

The setting of the story is also much removed from the centre of power and influence in the political sense if not geographically. In fact the author is shy of saying where in France the town of Janvilliers is. The descriptions of the seasons in the book and that Hartmann walks on a beach near his house from which 'the sea has disappeared'[5] puts it somewhere on the north coast. Imprecise as this is, it rules out the real Janvilliers being the location though its name may have been used because of that town's proximity to Verdun. Geographical imprecision serves the function of making the fictional Janvilliers a French "everytown" where the attitudes and experiences of its inhabitants typify those of towns throughout France of the period. Choosing 'Lion d'Or', a common and therefore typical name for French inns, as the name of the town hotel is meant to strengthen the idea of this representational aspect of Janvilliers. A war monument in the town centre commemorating the dead of the First World War could be found in any town in the country. Similarly, 'M. Bouin', a woman bereaved of her menfolk by the war and finding solace in religion, would be a familiar character in 1930's France. 'M. le Patron' typifies the defeatist mindset among many of the time while the odious 'Mattlin' is the town's future fifth columnist and collaborator.

'Hartmann' is the ineffectual liberal. His failure to confront 'Mattlin', whose slanders are undermining 'Hartmann's' reputation just as surely as the builder hired to renovate his house undermines its foundations, can be read as a metaphor of the centre-left government's failure to confront fascism either at home or abroad.


See also


  2. The Girl at the Lion d'Or Pp.115
  3. The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Pp 158
  4. 1 2 The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Prologue
  5. The Girl at the Lion d'Or Pp.227
  6. The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Pp 164
  7. The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Pp 225
  8. The Girl at the Lion d'Or Pp 11
  9. The Girl at the Lion d'Or Pp. 20 & Pp. 11–12. The quote, beginning with Louvert....had a theory on page 11 finishes with finds expression in a cry on page 12. The cry, especially the kind expressed by Hartmann on page 234- He turned and flung his arms around a wooden pillar in the hall, sobbing tearlessly is something of a motif in Faulks' novels. The same kind of helpless, despairing cry turns up in Birdsong (twice) and also in On Green Dolphin Street.


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