Monday, 20 February 2012

France's Iron Lady?

"I am not a sentimental woman. Even during my youth I wasn't given to melancholia or remorse. I rarely looked back, rarely paused to mark the passage of time. Some would say I do not know the meaning of regret. Indeed, if my enemies are to be believed, my unblinking eyes stare always forward, focused on the future, on the next war to fight, the next son to exalt, the next enemy to vanquish... I have become far more than was ever expected of me, even if loneliness was always present, like a faithful hound at my heels. The truth is, not one of us is innocent. We all have sins to confess."

I first wrote about Catherine de Medici when I was thirteen years old and the grammar school I attended ran an essay writing competition in which students had to pick a famous hero or villain from history and write about their lives. I came third, behind Florence Nightingale and Harry Ferguson (the inventor of tractor. It's Northern Ireland, after all.) Back then, I placed Catherine firmly in the "villain" category and earned my future History teacher's mistrust for concluding, "Like Vladimir Lenin, Catherine de Medici used her vast political power only to bring harm, rather than happiness." As I was to discover, talking smack about Lenin in my A-Level class was about as close to intellectual heresy as one could come at Down High, but I digress.

It wasn't until I was eighteen and read the debut biography of supermodel-turned-historian, Leonie Frieda, Catherine de Medici, that I began to change my mind about the sixteenth century Italian heiress who married into the French royal family as a teenager and became the de facto leader of the French government after her husband's premature death. More recently, I have returned to Catherine's life as I work on a script about the French Wars of Religion updated to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sadly, there are enough parallels to justify the comparison. One of the characters I enjoyed researching, writing and updating the most was Queen Catherine. 

For over a generation, Catherine de Medici committed fair deed and foul to keep her family on the throne, in the midst of eight appallingly bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In 1572, sectarian tensions erupted with the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants were brutally murdered. Catherine, rightly or wrongly, has been blamed for it ever since - either for deliberately orchestrating the massacre or for political incompetence in failing to prevent it. A foreigner, a woman and a politician, Catherine was widely despised by the time of her death and as Marie de Medici, Anne of Austria and poor Marie-Antoinette were to discover in centuries to come, being compared to Catherine de Medici was about as bad an insult as Frenchmen could give.

From the extraordinary story of Catherine de Medici's life and career, C.W. Gortner drew inspiration for his second novel. The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is told in the first person, with Catherine reflecting on life from her childhood education at the hands of her Aunt Clarice to her favourite son's desperate attempts to save the monarchy from the ambitions of the Catholic Holy League. To begin with, what's wrong with Confessions? Well, in the first place, it's too short. Or, at least, it certainly feels like Gortner wanted to write a much longer novel. It sometimes feels that Confessions is a bit rushed and although it gets all the major events of Catherine's journey, that kind of comprehensive coverage comes at the expense of descriptions of the palaces, fabrics, clothes, jewels and food that made up the queen's everyday life. There are also a few errors on etiquette and forms of address, which may seem trivial but, like descriptions of the everyday, it adds to the experience for the reader in experiencing the very different world Catherine lived in. I also felt that chapters 1 to 17 were enjoyable reading, but after chapter 17 Confessions became unputdownable. (I'm quite certain that is not a real word.) Without giving too much away, it's in chapter 17 that Catherine finally manages to acquire some political power for herself and it's also in that chapter that one of the characters I personally found most irritating finally snuffs it. (The character was irritating through no fault of the author's, I should point out. I simply found myself wanting to cigarette burn him throughout most of the story.)

For history fans, Gortner also deserves kudos for his clever characterisation of some of the other major players in Catherine de Medici's life. His portrayal of her husband's mistress, the legendarily beautiful Diane de Poitiers, was a favourite. Diane de Poitier's physical loveliness and her elegant manners have blinded generations of historians to what a monumentally unpleasant individual she was. Greedy, selfish and cold, Diane emerges from Confessions as the paragon of self-obsession she undoubtedly must have been in reality. There's a moment when the two women meet for the final time, where I very nearly cheered. 

Catherine's eldest daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, is also interestingly portrayed. (Mary's mother was a French aristocrat and she was brought up in France.) Queen Mary is shown as a pretty girl who happens to know she's pretty and acquires all the benefits and pitfalls to her personality that such life-long knowledge can give. Given the unending praise showered on Mary throughout her French childhood, all of which seems to have focused in some way on her looks, that seems a fair enough assumption. Mary is not, however, presented as necessarily unpleasant and her relationship with Catherine is nuanced and fair to both women. Catherine's youngest daughter, Margot, of la reine Margot fame, is always a fascinating figure and Gortner does her justice. Thanks to her own memoirs and Alexandre Dumas's nineteenth-century novel about her, Margot has gone down in history as a romantic legend. However, she and her mother were not on speaking terms later on in life and since this is a novel from Catherine's perspective, Gortner presents a very different, but equally interesting, portrait of Princess Margot. 

Perhaps my favourite part, however, was Catherine's own favourite child - her third son, Henri, Duc d'Anjou. Despite the feverish denials of French nationalist and pious Catholic historians, there can be absolutely no doubt to the logical mind that Henri III was gay. Or rather, what we would now recognise as gay. Because of this, Henri has gone down in history as an effete, sleeked, unnatural transvestite who frittered away his mother's political legacy and eroded public respect for the monarchy by cavorting with his male lovers whilst France collapsed around him. Twain's comment that the pages of history are written with the ink of fluid prejudice is especially true in Henri's case. Today, we can, or we should, look at Henri III's life differently. Undoubtedly, he made many, many mistakes as sovereign, but historians have rightly pointed out his work ethic, his strong commitment to the institution of monarchy and his genuine respect for his mother's achievements. Without giving too much away, Henri III emerges from the pages of Gortner's novel as a much more complicated, perhaps even a more likable, figure than in any of the other plays, novels or films inspired by his family's improbably dramatic lives.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is an excellent historical novel. I enjoyed reading all of it, but after reaching the second half, I suddenly wished it had been a good deal longer. Catherine de Medici emerges from Gortner's narrative as tough, determined and, if occasionally unlikable, you have to admire her tenacity and resilience. One can feel Gortner's own admiration for his leading lady shining through the pages of the novel and it's that determination to present Catherine as a figure worthy of respect, as well as interest, that makes Confessions such a clear labour of love for the author and a very enjoyable experience for the reader.


  1. Great review. I enjoyed this book, too! I LOVED the scene where Catherine confronts Diane one last time.

  2. I really want to read this book now. I have always been fascinated by Catherine de Medici, and the Medici family in general.

  3. A great review. I now need to read this one. What is it about history and strong women!


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