Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Author: C. W. Gortner
Publication Date: 2010
Length: 397 pages
Cost: It's still newer, so Amazon has it for 33% off of the $25.00 price ($16.67). The softcover is listed at just under $10, and the Kindle edition is just over $13.
Where Did I Hear About It: I was made aware of Gortner when I picked up The Last Queen, which I reviewed here. This is actually the book I was looking for when I picked up the other one first.

The Backstory

It's hard to tease out exactly how people perceive Catherine de Medici, the subject of this novel. Many people can match her with the famous Florentine Renaissance family, but her personal story is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps her portrait "says" it all--a strong, unflinching woman, up to the challenge that the many events of her life presented to her. Above all, the word "ruthless" has come to be associated with her, and this is primarily because of her involvement in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 during which hundreds of Protestant Huguenots were killed in Paris, France.

Catherine de Medici was born in Florence in 1519, and her parents died quite soon thereafter. Starting in 1520, she was raised by her aunt with her cousins, but when yet another Medici was elected Pope, this time, Giulio de Giuliano de Medici (Pope Clement VII), Catherine was moved to Florence to the Medici Palace there. As Catherine was the only child of the Duke of Urbino, she was acknowledged to be his successor. This worked against her when the Medici were violently overthrown in 1527. Pope Clement had his own problems with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the time, but Catherine joined him in Rome in 1530 after the rebels in Florence surrendered.

Catherine was betrothed to Henry, Duke of Orleans and second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude. They were both 14 at the time of their marriage, which took place in 1534. Pope Clement VII died the same year, and his successor, Pope Paul III refused to pay Francis I the large dowry his predecessor had promised. This put Catherine in a rather odd, vulnerable position that she had not anticipated. Added to this was Henry's neglect of his wife during the first ten years of their marriage. Instead of focusing on producing a family with Catherine, Henry preferred the company of several mistresses, the most notable being Diane de Poitiers, nearly 20 years his senior. Things changed for Catherine, for the better, when Francis' first son, Francis, died in 1536, probably of tuberculosis exacerbated by his previous living conditions in Spain. Francis had no children, and the responsibility to continue the Valois line fell to Henry and Catherine. Still, it wasn't until 1544 when Catherine gave birth to their first child, a son also named Francis.

It seems that Henry never warmed to Catherine, although they had nine children together. His primary mistress, Diane, actually encouraged the couple to have children, and this may the primary reason why they produced such a large family even though there was no affection between them. In 1559, Henry died after a jousting accident in which a lance broke in his eye. This changed everything again for Catherine. Her oldest son, Francis, then married to Mary, Queen of Scots, became king at the age of 15. He was immediately surrounded by a Catholic faction at court headed by the family of the Duke of Guise. This faction was interested in prosecuting the increasing Huguenot population in France, although Catherine encouraged her son to be tolerant. Francis died in 1560, and her second son, Charles, succeeded him. Catherine was far closer to Charles--he was only 9 years old--and wielded considerable power during his reign. Not wishing to push the country, on the brink of civil war, any farther, she adopted a policy of general inaction against the Protestants. This didn't stop the simmering unrest throughout the country mostly controlled by the nobility. One of the leaders, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, refused to disband a force of nearly 2,000 Protestant-sympathizers, and Catherine decided enough was enough. Catherine's Catholic forces, primarily under the control of the nobility of the affiliated court faction, struck back. However, at a siege of the city of Orleans, the head of the Guise family was killed in 1563. Unrest between Catholics and Protestants would remain a prominent political feature on the French landscape through the end of the century.

Catherine sought important marital alliances with the most prominent families in Europe. The most fateful alliance involved Catherine's daughter, Margaret, and Henry III of Navarre. Margaret wasn't much in favor of this match, and the couple never entirely got along. Margaret married Henry in 1572, days before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He returned in Navarre in 1576 without his wife, but she eventually joined him there. Eventually, after causing unnecessary unrest in Navarre, she was imprisoned by her brother, Henry (who succeeded Charles) in 1586 and spent nearly 20 years under house arrest.

Catherine's third son, Henry, succeeded Charles in 1574. Henry was an adult, and Catherine's role was not as prominent in his reign as it had been previously under Francis and Charles. Henry gradually lost patience with the Catholic court faction, and he murdered their leader, the Duke of Guise, in 1588. Because Henry had a childless marriage, he was forced to recognize Margot's husband, Henry, King of Navarre, as his successor. Navarre was a Protestant and living estranged from Margot, but regardless, he became king of France in 1589, eight months after Catherine de Medici died at the age of 69.

What About the Book?

Although this book is just as readable as The Last Queen, the story isn't quite as compelling in this novel as it was in its predecessor. There are plenty of interesting moments, personal challenges, and there is a huge cast of characters. Unfortunately, I think it is the fact that Gortner attempts to cover such a long period of time--nearly Catherine's whole life--that makes it difficult to keep the momentum in the narrative going from the beginning to the end.

Gortner again takes on the role of Catherine from a first-person perspective, and this is the same approach that he takes in The Last Queen. However, his perspective is more limited in this novel, and his lack of complete understanding of women peeks through far more. For example, when other women discuss Margot's narcissism, the solution proposed by Catherine and her other daughter, Claude, is that Margot should just have children and all will be right with the world. I see too many parallels between this perspective and this same mistaken assumption made by some men today to ignore it. There is more complexity in the character of Juana than there is in Catherine's character, and I think Gortner had a huge challenge in attempting to tell such a long story with so many events in only 400 pages. The story of Juana is much shorter, and it is clearly easier for Gortner to develop her character in that time frame.

I think one of the problems that can't be ignored by someone who has read both of Gortner's novels is how many similarities there are between them, and between the two women at the center of their stories. Both novels are "confessions" composed years after the events featured. Both novels attempt to "apologize" for and explain why the heroines did what they did to gain the reputations that history has afforded them. Juana is known as mad; Catherine is known as ruthless and cruel. Gortner tells their stories to try and explain the events that gained them these reputations. Both had troubled marriages, and they resolved these troubles somehow so their spouses, who preceded them in death, could die in peace. It's a little too neatly laid out for the reader--I think it wouldn't matter which novel a reader were to pick up first--he/she would come to the same conclusion.

Because the time frame in the novel moves so fast, it is hard to gain a true perspective of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in France at this time, and it is this conflict that is at the center of the novel. Readers don't grow to understand either perspective, but rather, to dislike both. Since Gortner's Catherine attempts to be sympathetic to both, it would only be fitting that the reader come to the same conclusion.

Gortner offers titles of other books at the end of the novel, again, which is an excellent touch. He also explains a few of the inconsistencies in the book and why he made the changes. As with any piece of historical fiction, some of it is accurate and some of it isn't. The series of events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre are pretty accurate, but the fact that Charles, Catherine's son and king at the time, is poisoned by Margot after being unable to live with himself after these events is not--Charles lived another two years after the fact, and it is completely improbable that his sister would have taken his life.

Rating: A 7--it's a fast-moving read with a lot of interesting events and people. However, Catherine's character isn't as well-developed, the book covers nearly her whole life in 400 pages, and it isn't as easy to buy Gortner's apology for Catherine's reputation for cruelty.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it. It's actually well worth your time. However, I still think that The Last Queen is the better novel of the two.


Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet after 1559

Catherine de Medici by Santi di Tito

Henry II of France, formerly the Duke of Orleans, by Francois Clouet

Gaspard de Coligny by Francois Clouet

Marguerite de Valois by Francois Clouet, c. 1560

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

I'm hooked on historical novels in the 1500s that focus on either England or France. This was a super review. Thank you! Based upon your review, I'm going to check it out of the library.

I believe it was Princess Michael of Kent who wrote a really good read about Diane de Poitiers.