BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

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.

NON-FICTION//How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne- Jonathan Beckman

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal That Shook the French Throne (Aug):  I’ll admit it- I am a Marie Antoinette obsessive. Benn thinks I have a thing for flawed queens who ultimately lost their heads (oh hai, Anne B./Mary, Queen of Scots!), but I think my interest is primarily about how they moved in a hostile society and how they made sense of their world. But I do have a special place in my heart for Marie Antoinette. I remember buying Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography from Shakespeare and Co on my first trip to Paris and just devoured it. Ultimately, I fall on the side of Marie Antoinette being a victim in a world that she didn’t quite understand and that never really accepted her.

This is perfectly encapsulated in the furore surrounding the Diamond Necklace Affair: a few years before the Revolution, a cardinal is conned into buying a ridiculous diamond necklace by a pretty young conwoman obsessed by her faintly aristocratic roots, thinking that he is buying his way into the favour of queen- who has never liked him. There’s a moonlit meeting (where he is fooled into thinking he has met her) and reams of potentially scandalous letters. Despite never being involved and not knowing anything about the plot until it’s too late, Marie Antoinette becomes embroiled in a PR nightmare which threatens to engulf the French throne- and is said by some to lead the French on a collision course with revolution.

Beckman’s account of the affair, its characters and its aftermath is as entertaining as it is detailed- I found myself chuckling at points (not something that happens all the time when I’m reading non-fiction!) The book finds something sympathetic about most of the characters involved in the story, which is not always easy- but is very effective at reminding us that people are driven to folly in desperate circumstances. It also means that , despite reading like a rollicking crime thriller, we see those involved as people- not merely 2D ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’.

HISTORICAL//The French Lesson- Hallie Rubenhold*

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I am a bit of a Francophile and I have a soft spot for the ladies of the 18th and 19th century demi-monde, which would have sold this book to me instantly. But then to add this cover AND a quote from one of my favourite historians? Well, I’m sold!

Set in the tumultuous period of the French Revolution before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were put to death, the novel tells the story of Henrietta Lightfoot: a young Englishwoman, illegitimate daughter of a duke, lover of  an AWOL lord and an inhabitant of the underworlds of both London and Paris.

Hetty finds herself in Paris after her lover, an English aristocrat, is called away from Brussels in the name of King and Country. But instead of going home to London, she embarks on a dangerous search for him in a city that is little more than a powder keg waiting to explode. Along the way, she falls in with some dubious characters and almost finds herself in her own meeting with Madame Guillotine.

I was aware of Rubenhold’s work around scandalous Georgian women (her biography of Lady Seymour Worsley has been on my wish list for ages and was adapted into a BBC drama last year starring Natalie Dormer), and true to her historical roots, there are many of the real characters from the French Revolution in this book. The Duc d’Orleans, his mistress Agnes de Buffon and an English courtesan rumoured to have been a spy, Grace Dalyrmple Elliot, are all major characters. Having gone away and looked at portraits of each of them, they are remarkably well described and believable as characters.

As a protagonist, I liked Hetty and I rooted for her. Her desire to be independent in a violent world in which the odds were stacked against women was interesting and seeing how she navigated the pitfalls of a society in which everyone is a potential informer was, at times, incredibly thrilling. I was definitely hooked.

The story itself was fast-paced and tightly plotted. Although some of the twists were not hugely surprising, this did not detract from my enjoyment- and there were some things that were unexpected. The book kept me reading and desperate to find out if Hetty would get her happy ending in a setting in which few were ever granted.