It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history. And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However, the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.
Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)
After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.
This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.
The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.