The General’s Mistress

Written by Jo Graham
Review by Sarah Johnson

The nondescript title of Jo Graham’s fourth novel fits her heroine, a Dutch courtesan who becomes the lover, in turn, of three generals of the French Republic. However, Elzelina Ringeling would stand out as unique and memorable whatever one chooses to call her.

After discovering her indifferent husband married her for her dowry, Elza flees Amsterdam for Paris, in disguise as her late brother Charles. She agrees to become General Victor Moreau’s mistress if he’ll serve as her protector. Although their liaison satisfies her material needs and passionate nature, the red-haired man she had once glimpsed in a tarot reading continues to occupy her thoughts.

Elza adopts the name Ida St. Elme, “for the fire that illuminates everything and yet is nothing but illusion.” Her fortunes rise and fall, but with her beauty and wit, she’s never alone for long. Her path leads her to the theatre, to the world of the occult, and into the arms of a surprisingly attractive First Consul Bonaparte before she encounters her soul mate, Michel Ney, a man who accepts her for herself – her cross-dressing habits included. The expressive rendering of their supernatural connection gives the novel a haunting flavor, although references to their past lives may confuse readers unfamiliar with Graham’s previous books.

On one level, the novel reads as an entertaining and sexy fictional biography of a real-life adventuress who reveals her love affairs, life in post-revolutionary Parisian society, and excitement in following the French army. More than that, though, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of personal freedom. The General’s Mistress presents a world sailing bravely into the modern age, with Elza/Ida as its compass. With her determination to chart her own future, one feels she could inhabit our time as readily as her own.