The Château de Chavaniac, a beautiful stone castle in the remote reaches of the mountains of Auvergne, is the birthplace of the Marquis de Lafayette, a man who played an integral role in the French Revolution and who famously helped the American colonies win their independence from British rule. In The Women of Chateau Lafayette, the marquis is a mere supporting figure as author Stephanie Dray’s novel instead follows three women over three eras of the château’s history.
First there’s Adrienne Lafayette, the marquis’ wife. History has all but forgotten her role as adviser and strategist to her husband, but she put her life and family at risk in pursuit of liberty for all of France. Then during World War I, Beatrice Astor Chanler, a millionaire’s wife and former actor, uses the family fortune to restore the crumbling château, transforming it into a sanctuary for sick and orphaned children. Finally there’s Marthe Simone, one of those orphans, who grows up at the château and works there as a teacher as the Nazis occupy France. Marthe uses her gift as a talented artist to falsify paperwork and protect Jewish children at the manor.
Dray is a bestselling historical novelist who has previously written about Eliza Hamilton and Patsy Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. Her ability to create engaging narratives from history, incorporating rich details and fully drawn characters, is downright magical. Adrienne and Beatrice are both based on real women whose stories come vividly to life here, while Marthe is a composite character inspired by the manor’s female resistance fighters, an artist-in-residence and other figures from the château’s history.
In The Women of Chateau Lafayette, we move among the extravagance of Marie Antoinette’s royal court, the brutality of trench warfare in World War I and the misery of a French countryside slowly starving under Nazi rule. It’s an epic, gripping novel, a powerful depiction of the way brutal conflicts based on prejudice and greed tend to repeat time and again. And through it all, Dray poignantly reminds us of the undervalued contributions of women throughout history.
“I had freed my family by force of will,” says Adrienne. “Not only my family, but those who had been arrested for our sake. I had done it without sacrificing any principle or doing violence. It was not the sort of victory for which people built stone monuments, but I hoped it might still, someday, be remembered.”