Having read a few of Gortner’s books and really enjoyed them, I so looked forward to losing myself in this fictitious retelling of the life of Catherine de Medici, one of the most notorious women in history who has been blamed for everything from poisoning members of her own family (including some of her children), the French royals, dabbling in prophecy and the Dark Arts, to instigating St Bartholomew Day massacre – the day thousands of Hugenots (French Protestants) were brutally slaughtered at the hands of their own countrymen. Using contemporary documents as well as a considerable knowledge of the era, Gortner presents the reader with a different kind of woman – strong, resourceful, and passionate and one determined to leave a legacy for her surviving children.
Written in the first person (as you’d expect a novel entitled “confessions” to be), the book commences with Catherine’s family’s expulsion from their native Florence and the ambivalent rule of her loathed relative, the Pope. Betrothed to Henri, son of Francois I of France, Catherine is sent there and determines to make a new home and life in this foreign country. Despised because of her lowly birth and ethnicity, finding her husband bewitched by his older mistress, Dianne de Poitiers, and thus repulsed by her, lonely Catherine finds a surprising ally in her husband’s father, the king.
Barren for years, her future appears uncertain until fate and a despised woman intervene. Children follow and using her wisdom, increasing diplomatic skills and intuition, Catherine works hard to secure her line and the safety of the throne for her children. A great believer in compromise, she refuses to bend to the will of the powerful, very Catholic and manipulative Guise family who wish to not only oust all Hugenots from France, but destroy heresy no matter what it takes and secure their own position as faux rulers as well.
When Catherine forms a relationship with the Hugenot leader, Coligny, peace between the religious factions seems within reach, but she does not account for the ruthlessness of those who oppose not only her, but Protestantism. Pushed and pulled in all directions, if Catherine is to save not only her children, but also the people of France from destruction, she may yet have to sacrifice something very important to her – her ideals.
From Italy to the palaces of Paris, the Loire valley and so many other locations, this is a sweeping story of one woman’s determination, courage and resolve. Gortner really does rewrite history in this book (and in his author notes, he explains some of the ways in which he steered from established fact and why) and, in doing so, presents the reader with a marvellous story or power, politics, sacrifice and passion. The version of Catherine he gives us is so very different from how she is remembered and really does offer food for thought. Providing a context for all her decisions, giving the reader even fictitious insight into her as a ruler, regent, mother, wife, and lover, is persuasive and instead of the two-dimensional woman hell-bent on self-aggrandisement and power at any cost, we’re given a compassionate and rich portrait of an extraordinary woman who suffers for her beliefs, for the love she bears her children and adopted country.
A terrific novel for lovers of history, especially those fascinated by the Tudor period but wanting to see it from a different perspective (Catherine’s rule coincided with the end of Henry VIII’s reign and then survived well into Elizabeth I’s – in fact, it was her two sons that were, at separate times, offered as possible suitors to the Virgin Queen), and for anyone after a great read.