The Amazon Kindle has provided a versatile publishing platform for people who want an alternative to getting their books published through the usual route of finding a “paper” publisher and persuading them to invest in their life’s work. Some of these Kindle-only books have done incredibly well. perhaps not least because they provide very economical reading – not many people would baulk at paying a pound or two for an interesting-looking book.
Although Susie Kelly has a number of print books to her name, the book under review here, The Valley of Heaven and Hell – Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette, (non-UK readers and people with ereaders other than Kindle can purchase from the links at the end of this review) is published only in ebook format, and as someone who enjoys reading about travel on foot or bicycle I can say its as good as any I’ve read and is a massively entertaining and satisfying read. Not only is is about a cycle ride, but Susie Kelly has linked the journey to a historical journey, in this case, the route Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XV1 took to escape from Paris. The escapees were apprehended at Varennes and then had to return to Paris under escort, thus providing the modern-day cyclists with a return journey of equal interest.
One advantage of an ebook is that hyperlinks are provided to many of the places visited. By using the Amazon “Kindle for PC” as well as the Kindle itself, it was easy to click on the links and see photographs and further information about the various locations.
The appeal of this book is its contrast between the stories which will inevitably arise when cycle-camping and the tragic events in the life of Marie Antoinette – a character for whom Susie Kelly has immense sympathy. The poor Austrian princess was betrothed to marry Louis, a second cousin when she was only ten years old and was handed over to the French at the age of 15 to a most unattractive lumpen young man who at first took little interest in his new bride. Her whole life was then lived in public, with audiences even watching the royal couple eat their meals. Susie Kelly describes the unreal life of the young Queen of France and it is difficult not to share her liking for this much-maligned empress.
Susie’s journey with her husband Matthew begins in Paris. Cycling in this bustling city is far from easy, and their hotel (the camping comes later) is surrounded by impenetrable road-works which provide confusion and noise sufficient to blight their first day on the road.
. . . the road is trembling beneath roaring machines gouging up the tarmac around the station. Temporary wooden walkways have been set up to allow pedestrians to move from one place to another; however, they are rather narrow, with sharp bends around which it is impossible to steer a bicycle carrying a wide load such as mine, as I discover about half way along. This means wheeling the machine backwards, against the oncoming crowds, the most difficult challenge so far on this afternoon of trials . . .
This is the first of many times when cycling is going to prove a very arduous experience for Susie and her husband Terry, even though Susie is equipped with an electric bike, this often proves to be less manoeuvrable and also heavier than her husband’s leg-powered model.
Although the journey is not very long in terms of cycle tours, the experience of camping is as always an unpredictable affair. The first time I camped in France I found the sites could be a very mixed bag, and the site wardens could be a difficult bunch. I always found it unsettling that they took our passports away when I registered and didn’t return it until we left the site. Sometimes the rules of the site seemed bizarre, while other times you could just turn up, pitch your tent and do what you liked. I learned always to take masses of bedding with me – like Susie, I found that camping in June is no guarantee of warm nights -
After we’d shivered for an hour we writhed with great difficulty, in the limited space and pitch darkness, into all our cycling clothes. Then we spread over ourselves an aluminium survival blanket, and over that our wet waterproof coats. The whole lot slithered about noisily every time we moved without noticeably adding any warmth, and our faces occasionally brushed against the damp and clammy walls of the tent. There was continual noise from aircraft, trains, cars, roaring motorbikes and barking dogs.
We are treated to a history of Champagne as the riders cycle through Epernay and Chalons. We were there last year and noticed like Susie that the region is not the most beautiful in France but has lots to interest. The little town of Chalons en Champagne is a gem of a place and my wife and I walked through park surrounded by historic buildings then sat at a café table enjoying looking at the half-timbered houses around us.
Before long, the travellers reach Reims and book into an hotel during the annual folk-lore festival and pageant in honour of Joan of Arc. This sounds a fantastic affair, the streets crowded with visitors from all over the world, with “a cacophony of sounds, cocktail of smells and a panorama of sights”. They manage to get their bikes safely into their tiny hotel room (a story in itself), and then bask in the incredible mix of experiences presented by the festival.
Susie and Terry have a fantastic time at the festival, but later in Reims cathedral, she is overwhelmed by a numinous experience which leave her overcome with emotion. And this is one of the features of this book, the mixture of light-heartedness with the sombreness of tone brought by her reflections on the World War 1 battlefields of the Marne or the tragedy of Marie Antoinette’s life.
You have to admire Susie and Terry’s persistence. At one point, rather than go travel along roads, they choose a canal-side route, but this proves to be more difficult than expected.
We battered our way through the jungular undergrowth beside the river, bouncing over rocks and tussocks. It was extraordinarily hard work keeping the wheels in the ruts. My head ached from the fierceness of concentrating. My hands dripped perspiration, and when I tried to change gear they slipped on the handles. The long grass poked through our wheel spokes, frequently tangling itself so thoroughly that the wheels were brought to a sudden halt. I was first to fall off. . .
I’ve cycled along canal tow-paths myself and found them to be full of tree-roots and sudden ditches – to attempt it while carrying full camping gear is not something I would choose, and when Susie and Terry encounter a long tunnel with a narrow towpath winding into the darkness, I think I would have given up.
Susie insisted on visiting every site she could find that had any link to the journey of Marie Antoinette and her husband. This takes her into some spectacularly beautiful buildings, but also some which are frankly disappointing. After the revolution, the remains of all the royals dating back to the 6th century ended up as a jumble of bones residing in the Church of St Denis in Paris – a building of “unkempt and dismal appearance”. Susie finds the tombs of Louis and Marie-Antoinette down in the crypt but there is no guarantee that after the turmoil of the Revolution that the correct bones were deposited in them.
The French seems to have a very equivocal of their royalty – in Britain most people have a half-hearted interest in their royal history while grudgingly acknowledging its significance. In France, the attitude seems to have become complicated by pride in the Republic and a reluctance to condemn the revolutionaries who dealt so harshly with kings like Louis who Susie describes as,
a kindly, humane king who wanted to improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged. Louis XVI abolished the forced unpaid labour previously imposed upon the peasants. He banned the use of torture as a means of extracting confessions. Under his rule Protestants, discriminated against since the time of Louis XIV, were tolerated, and the hitherto harsh taxation of Jews was lifted.
I have enjoyed this book not only as an entertaining “traveller’s tale” but also for the insight it has given me into the bloody phase of French history which so marks the landscape of Paris and the surrounding cities. It is difficult to fault The Valley of Heaven and Hell and for the price of £1.39 it seems remarkable value.