The King's Garden, by Fanny Deschamps. Book I translated by Frances Frenaye. Book II translated by Patricia Wong. New York: Harmony Books. 671 pp. $18.95. WITH the recent controversy about television ``docu-dramas'' and theatrical versions of the lives of Freud and Mozart, it is time to discuss the joys and sorrows of historical fiction. This genre of literature calls to mind in its higher elevations ``The Scarlet Pimpernel'' or ``The Man in the Iron Mask.'' In its most popular form we find an unremitting supply of Harlequin romances on the supermarket shelf. At its pulpiest, there are the infamous Classic Comics. To dissolve the ``Iliad'' into comic book squares seems heretical unless one is of the belief that any reading is preferable to no reading at all.
And to put 20th-century vernacular into the mouth of a television Hester Prynne does subtract from what we would like to think Hawthorne intended. Charlton Heston as Moses or George Burns as God takes us even further along the path of reducing greatness to the very small screen.
The list is long, too long, and the basic issue rather broad: What, if anything, can one learn from a fictional account of a historical event. Conversely, in the particular case of ``The King's Garden,'' what can one learn from a detailed account of fictional events peopled by historical characters? Though history has always offered the widest and most colorful settings for fictional ramblings, there is a serious problem with including figures who lived but who never encountered the characters of a writer's imagination.
In ``The King's Garden,'' although they have minor roles, we meet Diderot sitting on a park bench; the very young Mozart traveling with his father; Cassanova, beruffled and beflourished; and Cardinal Richelieu, in a larger role, as a smelly old lecher outwitted by our charming heroine, Jeanne. The intrusion of historical figures for the sake of ``authenticity'' is irritating. The novel would be better off in the realm of pure fantasy.
For fantastical it is -- light, airy, a speedy 700 pages. The tone is breathy, urgent, the characters pure fluff. It is a semi-Gothic romance of epic proportions, set first in the pink and blue pre-revolutionary France of Fragonard's paintings, then taken via the high seas to the exotic and steamy tropical jungles of the French West Indies. Translated from the French, the prose is melodramatic, in keeping with the action. The plot is basic: Girl meets idolized tutor, girl meets dashing pirate, girl attempts, as we say these days, to ``have it all.''
On Page 1 we meet Jeanne. ``She was only fifteen but life seemed to bear down on her with the weight of a thousand years.'' Jeanne is always sighing. By Page 202 she meets, at the Opera Ball, the seductive corsair. ``Vincent held her hand, questioningly. He was staring at her mask so intently she thought it would burn away.'' By Page 508 she finds her garden, ``wildly overgrown,'' ``heavy-scented,'' ``primitive; tangled,'' and of ``stifling beauty.''
It has been a wild and adventurous journey filled with duels, shipwrecks, jealousy, heartbreak, and Yentl-like disguises. There has also been time for any number of vexing glances, lavender-scented daydreams, heavily brocaded gowns, and lighthearted flirtations. The descriptive language is as rich and eventually as cloying as all those afternoon jam-filled tea snacks. The characters are occasionally clever, mostly selfish, many practically useless. And the plot is simplistic, the action flailing. The role of women -- to decorate, delight, then outwit the men -- is embarrassing.
Optimistically, however, there is in ``The King's Garden'' a perverse credit to the human spirit. Here is a life in which there is absolutely nothing to do. And in it a bored 15-year-old manages to take in hand her vivid imagination and to realize her dreams. It is questionable whether her rather picaresque journey is able to teach her very much, but such a question is too serious for such a book. ``The King's Garden'' -- farce to scholars, parody to sophisticated readers, humor to historians -- would be great fun for a weekend house guest to find on the bedside table. It is perfect to give your younger sister if you want her to think you think she has grown up.
``Indeed, even when she felt vaguely dissatisfied, Jeanne wondered exactly what she did want. She was young and beautiful, she had Philibert, she had Paris and, besides these, she had a new bonnet.''
Elizabeth Chamish is a free-lance writer.