I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse. ~Henri IVC.W. Gortner's new historical novel The Confessions of Catherine de Medici recalls to mind a feeling we all have had at some time in our lives. It is the feeling a person has when a rug is pulled out from under them, except that instead of falling and hitting the floor, they continue to fall. Such a sensation Catherine de Medici must have experienced almost constantly throughout her life. As soon as she was beyond one tragic, life-threatening circumstance, barely treading water, another debacle would befall her.
It started when as an infant her parents died, and Catherine was left an orphan in hostile circumstances. As a very young girl she thought she had found a home in France when her uncle the pope sent her to marry one of the sons of François I. Although she loved her new country she realized her battle for survival had only just begun. Catherine had no weapon but her wits, but as history bears witness, she was very rarely outwitted, and when she was, the results were disastrous for everyone.
Henri, Catherine's husband, as a young teenager came under the thrall of a much older woman, Diane de Poitiers. I personally never saw anything romantic about their liaison. There is nothing romantic about a mature woman leading a boy into a sexual relationship which leaves him emotionally crippled and dependent upon her for life. After reading Confessions I can only see the Henri/Diane affair as unnatural and sick; I think Catherine came to see it that way eventually, not that anything could take her pain away. Diane was at the root of the dysfunction which seemed to consume and destroy the Valois family, even after she had long been dead.
I read one of Jean Plaidy's novels about Catherine de Medici as a teenager. It was excellent and introduced me to Catherine. Mr. Gortner, however, is better able to capture the Mediterranean temperament of "Madame de Medici," just as he so ably captured the fiery Latin temperament of Juana la Loca in The Last Queen. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is when Catherine slaps Diane de Poitiers, saying: "Putana!" right before Diane slinks away to the country. (I cheered out loud for Catherine.)
As is well-known, Catherine de Medici was interested in astrology, and kept at least one full-time astrologer in her pay, but then so did most of the other courts of Europe. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance astrology was seen as a science and played a part in medicine and horticulture, although the line between science and superstition was easy to cross. In the novel, as France descends into violence and as family members die one by one, Catherine becomes more superstitious and eventually sinks into cynicism and near despair. The danger of relying on horoscopes was aptly illustrated for me. On the other hand, Catherine is also a friend of the famous Nostradamus, a Catholic physician with prophetic gifts, which he uses to warn Catherine, at least up until his death.
The Wars of Religion is one of the most complicated eras in French history but, like the Albigensian crusade, it was mostly about fighting for political power, with religion as a pretext. Many Huguenots used religion as a pretext to rape nuns and desecrate Catholic churches, whereas Catholics like the Guises exploited the Catholic faith as an excuse to murder many people. The Guises also hated Catherine and wanted to control the throne; they were greater enemies to her in many ways than were the Huguenots. Catherine's advocacy of tolerance is a matter of public record and yet in the popular mind she is falsely held responsible for one of the most horrific massacres of all time.
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici would make a great film or television series. The story of the last Valois has always seemed to me to be the ultimate operatic tragedy, with characters which no novelist could invent, although interpreting such a complicated family into fiction must be a challenge. Mr. Gortner makes the family come alive; he convincingly depicts Catherine as a mother trying to protect the children who had once been taken away from her. He shows her to be a Queen who will use whatever methods at her disposal to bring peace to France. Yes, she could be ruthless, but then she had been so often deprived of the love which should have been hers.
*Note: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici was sent to me by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.