The teaching of history in Britain is very anglocentric. If it didn’t happen in Britain nobody appears to be bothered about it. So although I know copious amounts about Henry VIII and his 6 wives, I couldn’t tell you who any of the other European monarchs were at the time.
Turns out French Renaissance history is just as juicy and noteworthy as England’s. Catherine de’ Medici was the daughter of an Italian merchant who married the second son of the French king François I. This minor noble women ended up reigning over France for over 40 years, first as the Queen of Henri II then as Queen Consort to 3 of her sons. Even once they reached maturity she was still a key political player.
Her daughter Marguerite de Valois is the ‘Rival Queen’ of the title. Forced into a loveless political marriage the wedding day of which resulted in the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Margot as she was known, spent her life fighting the iron will of her ambitious mother. A devout Catholic she was a pawn in the Wars of Religion and a pariah in her husband’s Protestant kingdom of Navarre.
This book tells their story from Catherine’s wedding to Margot’s death and every moment is jam packed with scandal. At the time the French court was renowned for espionage and there is back stabbing and betrayal on an epic scale. Love, power and death play out in a melodrama so heightened you would think it fictional but this is actually the foundations of Western society as we know it.
It helps when writing a non-fiction book to have a really fascinating topic and Nancy Goldstone could hardly go wrong with her choice. Even so she tells the story in a way that makes me think of the next episode button on Netflix. Somehow she has made history into a page turner. I had to know what happened next. There is a section in the second half of the book about how Margot was perused across France by rival forces and it was as tense and suspense filled as any first person thriller.
Goldstone also presents a relatively balanced view of both women. History has not looked favourable on either and she does a really good job of saying “this is how it has been viewed for centuries, but the facts could also suggest this”. She is very aware of the fact that the portraits painted of both Catherine and Margot are how men saw them which was probably not how they really were. Also she draws heavily from Margot’s memoirs as a source but does a really good job of saying “she could be lying about this bit”. As a result it is a bit like unreliable narration. We as the reader are left to draw our own conclusions about both women. Personally, I think they were both out of their depths in a man’s world but did the best they could given their restricted education and position.
Would recommend to: historical fiction lovers who want to read non-fiction.