The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

Romping royals…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the rival queensIt’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.

Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!

Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet
Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet

Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…

After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.

Diane de Poitiers - mistress of Catherine's husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!
Diane de Poitiers – mistress of Catherine’s husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!

Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.

Chenonceau - my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress...
Chenonceau – my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress…

Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.

Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.

Marguerite de Valois
Marguerite de Valois

A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.

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48 thoughts on “The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

  1. This sounds absolutely brilliant – I was pretty much sold anyway, but the mention of ribald humour and explicit footnotes sealed the deal! I do love a good historical romp and am descended from the Huguenots so this one is a must, I think. Awesome review, too!

    • Thank you! 😀 Oh yes – I hadn’t made that connection with your name, but of course! I reckon you’d enjoy this – I might have felt it was a bit too pro-Marguerite but it managed to be informative and fun – my favourite kind of history! And it’s worth it just for that footnote… 😉

  2. What a great review, FEF! You do know how to make them very fun!

    Goodness, the royalty were a bunch of wicked, fighting brutes. This is a time I could’ve got along fine in. I’m sure there was plenty of fights and secret meetings and even missions.

    The castle is nice. I wonder if there’s a way to get up from the water…into those rooms!

  3. Oh, this does sound quite good, FictionFan. Biased or not, it sounds like a fascinating portrait of the people and the times, and that alone is a draw for me. And I find it really interesting that on the one hand, daughters were seen as political pawns, and not people with their own wills. On the other, there’s this sense of ownership of sexuality. I suppose that it’s at least in part a case of taking whatever empowerment one can…

    • Very readable and a lot of fun! Yes, having read a fair amount about the various Queens of that period recently I’ve been appreciating more that they weren’t quite as passive as I would perhaps have expected. Actually if I was to give either of these the ‘early feminist’ title, (which I wouldn’t), it’d be Catherine. Awful she may have been, but she had the guts to grab power and hang on to it in the face of some very powerful and equally awful men. And used whatever weapons came to hand – including her own children.

  4. Want that castle, want that castle. Great review, and, tis funny, I’ve been reading a completely unrelated book where the same mistake is made – i.e. a backward interpretation of history attempting to overlay the mores and motivations of the present upon the past. it does rather make me spit!

    I suspect your book was much funnier though. You could always open another blog site – FictionFan’s X rated reads………..

    • I visited Chenonceau as a teenager and fell completely in love with it. It’s my idea of the prefect castle, with the massive ballroom in that gallery that runs over the water. In fact, there was a period of time when I wanted to be Diane de Poitiers when I grew up. Fortunately it didn’t happen! Yes, I get fed up when they do that, especially if it’s inconsistent as I felt it was in this one. I’m not defending Catherine – she was appalling- but if either of them was an ‘early feminist’, it would be her rather than Marguerite. Even if she did need to get some boudoir tips from time to time… Diane could have set up an early version of Cosmo…

  5. Wonderful review, FF. I went through a royal period years ago, devouring books on kings and queens and I remember feeling much the same way about the author’s inability to see beyond modern sensibilities. Regardless, it was a fun romp.

    btw, That castle looks like it belongs in PL! I wonder if the Professor knows how to swim.

  6. This one sounds a hoot. I know a bit about this period, and from what you say in your review, this book sounds as if it was a fairly accurate, if simplified, account of the period. Laughter- inducing footnotes? Whatever next!

    • Of course I’ve simplified even more than she did, but definitely a hoot! These Renaissance Queens may not have done much for World Peace but they have provided subsequent generations with endless entertainment… 😉

  7. One can’t blame Catherine for being peeved at the castle going to the mistress (who, by the way, appears much more interesting, even down to her red lipstick!!) As for poor Marguerite, there’s something “knowing” about her expression, wouldn’t you agree? Ah, the royals. Are we Americans ever NOT fascinated by them and their antics?!? Well done, FF!

    • Ha! Yes, I thought Diane sounded like the one who’d be most fun to spend some time with too – and more eductional! 😉 It’s funny – Marguerite was reputed to be a great beauty but apart from this one most of her portraits make her look like a pantomime dame. I’d be very happy to send our Royals over to you, if you’d like… though the current crop aren’t nearly as much fun…

  8. This sounds fascinating and I’m tempted to read this just to find out what that advice consisted of!! As you say, it does sound a little biased but as it is so accessible then maybe I could forgive the author… I had to smile at the end though, only you could compare this period of history to Dallas!

    • Haha! I could hear the Dallas theme tune in my head at some of the chapter endings! Yes, despite the bias I thought this one was a great way of learning about the history while still being fun. And I’m sure you’d love that footnote…

  9. It sounds interesting. I do not know too much about the lives of Continental monarchs, except from what I have read in the superb historically based fiction of Marjorie Bowen, who has my vote for being the most brilliant hidden gem literary talent in many decades. I wonder if you have come across her works? I got excited after discovering her a few years ago, and started buying dozens of out-of-print versions. Now I find that many of them are being realized in generic print paperbacks. I am pretty sure that she would have written about some of the figures in this work.

    Your remark about corrupting your search recommendations was very funny. They may take a while to recover!

    You make a very important point about the folly of trying to append modern-day attitudes onto figures from centuries ago. This is constantly done in TV shows, where various fictional characters from past eras are shown as “ahead of their time” in their views. It is actually rather incongruous, but the writers fear the wrath of the modern audience which does not care to understand that rightly or wrongly, people saw things differently in a different age; and undoubtedly will do so a few hundred years from now.

    • No, I haven’t come across Margaret Bowen. I don’t read as much historical fiction as I’d like really, partly because of the whole modern-day attitudes issue – so many authors do that, especially when writing about women. They don’t seem to realise that we’re capabale of admiring characters even when they don’t behave in a way we’d find acceptable today. My knowledge of European history in general is pretty abysmal – until recently I’ve always tended to stick to British history. But I’m enjoying getting a broader view of the Age of Queens – what a bunch!

      Haha! I must say Goldstone’s writing style was perfect for this kind of romping history! She was so funny about Diane giving Catherine advice – I must admit, awful though she undoubtedly was, I couldn’t help having a sneaking sympathy for poor Catherine!

      • Marjorie Bowen; and I am only correcting it because you might want to look her up at some point. She was an incredible talent. She wrote over 150 books, under a variety of pen names, Marjorie Bowen being the one she used to write her historical fiction, which I think she tried to make very close to the reality of the history, just imagining scenes, and non-historical characters. There is often romance in the stories, but there is also often a sense of doom or sadness, as well.

        She wrote some amazingly good ghost stories which you might well like. And later in her life, she wrote a series of gothic mysteries under the pen name of Joseph Shearing. Four of them were made into British movies in the 1940’s, and very few people seemed to realize that Shearing was the same writer as Bowen. She had two unsuitable husbands, and had to raise three children alone, which forced her to write very quickly to be able to sell the books. Had she had more time to edit them, there is no telling how brilliant they would have been; as it is, they are amazingly good. She wrote her first book around age 16, and Graham Greene later said that reading this book was what caused him to want to become a writer. I almost hate to share her, as I feel proprietary towards her, but you have romantic taste in literature, so I think you would like her. And she deserves to be famous and much read.

        • I’ll definitely look her up – thnak you. It looks as if some of her stuff is now being reissued on Kindle too – not much yet, but hopefully more will become available. I know what you mean about feeling proprietorial about certain authors – I feel that way about some of them too. It’s always great to have an author that you can feel pretty confident you’re going to enjoy whenever you start a new book…

  10. You’ve done yourself proud Fiction Fan. Best review I’ve read this week. It all sounds so wicked and debauched! These Royals appear to have only one thing on they’re minds. Shocking…I must read those first 25 pages. 🙂

    • Haha! Thank you! The more fun the book is, the more fun it is to write the review! And there’s no doubt all these horrendous Queens have provided much entertainment for subsequent generations even if their subjects were probbaly quite glad to see them gone! Yes, I think you’d enjoy that footnote… 😉

    • This is definitely an enjoyable one! I didn’t know much about either of these Queens before I began and now Elizabeth and Mary look quite well-behaved to me! 😉 It’s a great period of history with all these Queens but probably more fun reading about it than living through it…

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