Collector, adventurer and artist, Vivant Denon was a youthful courtier at Versailles; he lived through the French Revolution, and galloped across Egypt with Bonaparte. A skilled survivor, he knew everyone - Marie Antoinette, Voltaire, Robespierre, Catherine the Great, the artists of the day, Boucher and David. He found world fame without seeking it, risking his life and happiness in an endless quest, a love affair with art. Taking a real historical figure, his extraordinary life, his passions, his friendship with Napoleon, the Venetian contessa who was his great love, Lee Langley has created a vast, rich canvas that captures the dying grandeur of Venice, the battle of the Nile, a dazzling liaison dangereuse, bringing to life the sweep of the period alongside a tender and intimate story. Remaining true to Denon's biography, she has with verve, wit and imaginative invention, constructed a parallel existence for a vulnerable, guarded man in a laughing mask.
And there is Baptiste, the valet, living in his shadow, observing the antics of the court and the turbulence of the Terror, and his master, ever closer to Napoleon, cramming the Louvre with the looted treasures of the enemies of France. The private life, too, is open to the observant eye of the valet. He is the confidant, the recipient of secrets. Servant and master, the provider of comforts and the privileged - a relationship as close as marriage. And what of the valet himself? He too has hopes. And heartbreak.
Lee Langley is the author of Changes of Address, Persistent Rumours, A House in Pondicherry and False Pretences (all of which have been published in Vintage paperback editions). Her most recent novel, Distant Music, was about the Jews in Portugal through several centuries. Her novels have been highly praised and she has won many awards including the Commonwealth Writers' prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and lives with her husband, the writer and historian Theo Richmond, in west London.