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The Virgin Blue Tracy Chevalier


This is Tracy Chevalier's debut novel. It concerns an American called Ella Turner who has moved to France to be with her husband as he pursues the next stage in his career. Her father suggests that she take the opportunity to visit her relatives in Switzerland, but Ella points out that Switzerland is a whole different country, and besides, she's never met her cousins before.

  Ella decides to continue her own career as a midwife in France, but although her French is good, she struggles to adapt. She's not given a particularly warm welcome. She and her husband Rick decide to try for a baby, but each time they try to conceive, Ella is tormented by a nightmare in which a particular shade of blue predominates. She hides her anguish from Rick, and decides to follow up her father's suggestion about finding out more about her family. Although her family does have its historic roots in the Cevennes, finding out about them turns out to be quite difficult. The fact that the family moved from France to Switzerland though does tend to suggest that they were Huguenots persecuted after the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Eve. Ella tries to register at the library under the original Turner family name, 'Tournier', and is distraught when the haughty librarian refuses her request. However, it seems that the librarian has been moved to act on her emotional request after all. It's not long before Ella is aided and hindered in her search for her family by this enigmatic librarian, Jean-Paul.

  Intertwined with Ella's story is that of La Rousse, Isabelle du Moulin. She's called La Rousse because this is a Cevenol nickname for a girl with red hair (although maybe Chevalier was also inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, who stayed with a woman called La Rousse before starting her crusade). Red hair is also associated with the red hair of the Virgin Mary, an association that Isabelle is all too aware of. It seems throughout the novel that she has never fully converted to Protestantism like the huge majority of her community, and one of her daughters is even named Marie. One of the themes of this novel is how traits are handed down the generations. Isabelle becomes midwife just like her mother, and although her mother has taught her a great deal of the secrets concerned with this trade, there is also the sense that it comes naturally to her. I think that one of the most crucial passages in the book is that on page 88: Ella Turner is driving through the French countryside when she notices the growth of Queen Anne's Lace and jack-in-the-pulpit. Although no reference is made to this in the text, both these plants have been employed as traditional herbal remedies for conception, with contrary effects. Maybe Ella has learnt about these plants as part of her midwife training back home in the US, but I like to think that this is Chevalier's way of saying that Ella knows instinctively to look out for these plants as part of her genetic code to be a midwife. This passage certainly shows, as did Falling Angels, that Chevalier's research is very thorough and that she has a very subtle approach to using this data. Jean-Paul does criticise certain fabulous coincidences, but no doubt he also has similar enthusiasm for his research when it springs up the incredible but true. The Cevennes has also traditionally been home to a particularly vicious breed of wolf, which has very much torn its way into local legend.

  In Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier reveals that she always reads an author's acknowledgements in the hope of finding their true voice, and what they're really like. Here, you can't help but wonder how autobiographical this novel is, especially when her bio in the book reveals that "She has family in the United States, France and Switzerland". The fact that Ella seems so intent on researching Etienne Tournier may be obliquely related to the fact that an Etienne Chevalier was treasurer to the French King and a great patron of the arts in the Fifteenth Century. After all, Tracy Chevalier did mention the music hall song "'Appy 'Ampstead" in Falling Angels because a certain Albert Chevalier wrote it. Jean-Paul typically drives a Citroen Deux Chevaux, but the inn in Moutier really is called Cheval Blanc. The resolution of The Virgin Blue is also reminiscent of the end to Falling Angels. It may be that some of these links are just as much 'red fish' as Nicolas Tournier (the 'Virgin Blue' actually comes from a painting by Bellini). However, just as Ella seems to genetically share Isabelle's trade, then so can we all instinctively react to every parent's nightmare. To some readers, it may seem as though the climax does literally come out of the blue, but a close reading of the text does reveal that Chevalier has laid down clues here and there, and I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and let her get away with it. As the links below show, Tracy Chevalier has very much done her homework. It seems that the Tournier family may have much more sinister traits than just the practice of kissing three times in greeting...

Authortrek Rating: 9/10

Kevin Patrick Mahoney


Visit our Tracy Chevalier page, for Tracy Chevalier biography, Tracy Chevalier bibliography, and Tracy Chevalier interviews


The following links detail the cultural context of Tracy Chevalier's first novel:


J. W. Von Goethe - this page gives an outline on Goethe's Theory of Colours. Goethe is mentioned throughout The Virgin Blue. Goethe attached great importance to the colour blue


English/French Dictionary - p.3 I believe 'Aigle' is French for Eagle


Felgerolles - p. 5 a page on this hamlet


Granite Architecture - this page mentions Mont Lozere p. 5


Florac - a French webpage about this town p. 11


Massacres of the South by Dumas is an account of the Catholic/Protestant struggle


The History of Protestantism by James A. Wylie


Cleda - p. 18 - find a definition on this webpage, also mentions 'bajanas'


Sainte Vierge, aide-moi - p. 18 - this site reveals that Isabelle is praying to the Virgin Mary


Lisle-sur-Tarn p. 22 the website of the town where Ella and Rick decide to live


Bastille - turns out to be derived from bastide


Langue d'oc - a detailed explanation


Musee des Augustins - see p. 54


Nicolas Tournier - p. 55 this website mentions Tournier in connection with the Musee Des Augustins


The Wars of Religion - see more about the Massacre mentioned on p. 57


Werewolves and Other Beasts - Nicholas Crane walks in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes. This website mentions the religious wars, ferocious wolves, and the Col de Finiels of Mont Lozere - p.72


Pigments and Paints - as Jean-Paul says on p. 81, lapis lazuli is very expensive - this website reveals that it was known as the Virgin Blue

Queen Anne's Lace - p. 88 this website reveals that the seeds from this plant can be used as a contraceptive


Feeling Frisky? Herbs for Fertility - as this website reveals, jack-in-the-pulpit is a plant that can increase fertility. No doubt Ella knows about these plants from her occupation as a midwife, or maybe it's something she's inherited unconsciously from Isabelle?


Mende Cathedral - here's a picture of the Cathedral mentioned on p. 89


Jehan Fouquet (or Jean Fouquet) - in "Falling Angels", Tracy Chevalier mentioned the song "'Appy 'Ampstead", which happened to have been written by Albert Chevalier. I was inspired by the mention of "Etienne Tournier" on p. 90 to see if there was a famous Etienne Chevalier - there is. Etienne Chevalier was treasurer to the French King in the Fifteenth Century, and was a great patron of the arts (especially painter Jean Fouquet)


Etienne Chevalier and his Patron - this a well known portrait of Chevalier by Fouquet


Joan Of Arc - when Joan left home, she stayed with a woman called La Rousse - possibly another reason why Chevalier chose to use this nickname? - p. 97


The Huguenot Cross - see p. 98


Jura Mountains - p.110


Hemp Cloth making - see p. 111


Cheval Blanc- this inn is still in Moutier p. 114


Herbal Emmenagogues -p. 116 Isabelle uses Juniper and Rue to abort Pascale's baby, so Isabelle does indeed have knowledge about herbal remedies as part of her midwifery skills - see my discussion of Queen Anne's Lace and jack-in-the-pulpit above


San Zaccaria Altarpiece - p. 120 - this is the picture of the Virgin that the peddler refers to


Lefevre d'Etaples - a bio - see p. 133


History of Midwifery - mentions sage-femme p. 138


The Protestant Reformers on Mary - see p. 140


Frank Sinatra - more on his circular breathing, and who hhe learnt it from p. 146


The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam - visit the homepage p. 179


Visit our Tracy Chevalier page, for Tracy Chevalier biography, Tracy Chevalier bibliography, and Tracy Chevalier interviews


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