Friday, October 23, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #9

Two reasons left! As a literature professor as well as a writer, I hold this one close to my heart.


Current historical fiction set in sixteenth century France participates in a rich tradition stretching back to the seventeenth century. In fact, the novel most scholars consider to be the very first historical novel written in French was set during the sixteenth century--La Princesse de Montpensier by Madame de La Fayette.

Penned in 1662, La Princesse de Montpensier is set a hundred years earlier, during the Wars of Religion. With great psychological depth, it tells the story of Renée d'Anjou-Mézières, a young noblewoman trapped in a loveless marriage, who falls victim to her passion for the Duc de Guise. Guise's friend, the Duc d'Anjou (who will take the throne as Henri III), himself becomes enamored of Renée, with disastrous results. La Fayette's novel is the first to take actual historical personnages as characters and set them in circumstances in which historical tensions and events (the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre) are intrinsic to the plot. The novel was made into a successful film by noted director Bernard Tavernier in 2010

and in 2017 became the first book by a female author included on the baccaularéat littéraire, the exam that grants French youth a secondary school diploma. Madame de La Fayette's better-known novel, La Princesse de Clèves (1678), also exploits a sixteenth century setting. A psychological drama that takes place at the court of Henri II, it too explores the theme of love versus duty.

The literary roots of historical fiction set in sixteenth century France push even deeper. The era was a favorite of the prolific French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Best known for Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-46) and Les Trois Mousequetaires (1844), Dumas wrote a series of seven "Valois romances." La Reine Margot (1845) tells the story of the politically-motivated marriage between Catholic Marguerite de Valois (daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Médici) and Protestant Henry of Navarre and the bloody St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre that followed it. This novel has been made into film several times, most recently in 1994.

Dumas's Valois romances also include Ascanio (1843), a novel about François I and Benevuto Cellini that became the basis of an opera, as well as novels about Henri II, Catherine de Médici, François II, and Henri III.

The twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in sixteenth century France as a setting for historical fiction. In 1935 and 1938, the German author Heinrich Mann wrote two novels about Henri of Navarre, who ruled as Henri IV.

Eleanor Hibbert, under the pseudonym Jean Plaidy, wrote three novels about Catherine de Medici,  Madame Serpent (1951), The Italian Woman (1952), and Queen Jezebel (1953), recently reissued by Atria. Plaidy's books were the ones that sparked my love for historical fiction as a teenager.

Dorothy Dunnett set two volumes of her excellent and intricate Lymond Chronicles in Renaissance France, Queen's Play (1964) and Checkmate (1975).

Robert Merle, a French author, wrote the Fortune de France series from 1977-2003. These thirteen novels view the second half of the sixteenth century through the eyes and adventures of a Huguenot doctor-turned-spy. Merle's novels have sold over five million copies in France, where he has been called "the modern Dumas." The novels are slowly being translated into English by Pushkin Press; the first four are presently available.

Kate Mosse is currently writing a series set in during the religious conflicts. The Burning Chambers came out in 2018; The City of Tears is set to published this coming January. I believe a third volume is in the works.

Among the writers who have published stand-alone novels set in sixteenth century France are Judith Merkle Riley, The Master of All Desires (1999);

Diane Hager, Courtesan (2006);

Jenny Diski, Apology for the Woman Writing (2009);

Christopher Gortner, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici (2011);

and Sophie Perinot, Médicis Daughter (2015).

Historical fiction set in sixteenth century France has a long history and vibrant future. Many angles, personalities, and events remain to be explored and transformed into compelling, thought-provoking, and entertaining novels readers will be eager to read. 

Be sure to read Reasons #1-8 (ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZ, HISTORY, FRANCE, and CHATEAUX) before I unveil the final reason next week!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #8

The next reason I'll propose for reading historical fiction set in sixteenth century France is a corollary of Reason #7--FRANCE, but one that merits its own mention...

Reason #8--CHATEAUX

France's scenic countryside is dotted with thousands of castles. They range from ruined medieval fortresses

Château Galliard

to elaborate nineteenth century wine estates

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to Renaissance royal palaces.

It has always been impossible for me to see these buildings and not immediately start imagining the intrigue and drama that took place within their walls--precisely what historical fiction set during the sixteenth century aims to do! So many important historical events and struggles took place at these locations, they readily lend themselves as fantastic settings for novels. Let's travel to some of the most important Renaissance châteaux and examine what happened there.

Château de BLOIS

Photo credit: Zairon

In 1515, François I and his wife Claude ascended to the throne. At Claude's urging, François began to refurbish the château de Blois, which had been used by French kings since the 13th century. He built a new wing with a spiral staircase at its center and consolidated his prodigious collection of books in the library. However, after Claude, mother of his seven children, died at the age of 24, François neglected Blois in favor of other palaces. He moved his library to Fontainebleau and seldom returned to Blois. Perhaps memories of his years there with Claude, of whom he had been fond, made François uncomfortable? Later in the century, Henri III resided at Blois with his mother, Catherine de Medici, during the chaos of the Wars of Religion. In December 1588, Henri summoned to Blois the Duc de Guise, a powerful and charismatic Catholic leader who nurtured ambitions for the throne. Once arrived, the Duc was assassinated by the king's body guard as the king looked on. How is that for an inciting incident, or a novel's climax?

Château d'AMBOISE

François I was raised at Amboise, the first French château to be "Italianized." Renovations had begun in the late 1490's under Charles VIII; François, crowned king in 1515, further embellished the buildings. At his invitation, Leonardo Da Vinci took up residence in nearby Clos Lucé from 1516-1519 and contributed to the transformation of Amboise. It was on the door of François's chamber at Amboise that Antoine Marcaut posted a list of the abuses of the "Papal Mass" during the Affair of the Placards in October 1534, outraging the king and disrupting his process of moderate ecclesiastic reform. In 1560, a Huguenot plot dubbed "The Amboise Conspiracy" attempted to kidnap the young king, François II, to remove him from the influence of the powerful Catholic uncles of his wife, Mary Queen of Scots. When the plot failed, the conspirators were arrested and hung from the château's balconies as an example. Lots of material for historical novels in the annals of this château!

Chambord is truly a Renaissance château--it was built from scratch on order of François I, beginning in 1519. Chambord, with its 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases, was never intended to serve as a primary residence, but as a symbol of François's power and aesthetic achievements. The king only slept there a total fifty days, but used Chambord to entertain his favorites and dazzle his rivals. Leonardo da Vinci was intimately involved in its design and construction; his artistry produced the château's famous double helix staircase, the center-plan design of its keep, and its double-pit evacuation system. The only historical event of note that occurred at Chambord during the sixteenth century was the visit of Charles V of Spain in December 1539, a stop on his elaborate state visit to France. I've always thought Chambord would be an excellent setting for some sort of time-slip or historical mystery novel.

Photo credit: Tim Sackton

The Château de Chenonceaux, with its arched gallery that stretches across the Cher river (see the third photo above), is one of the most readily recognized châteaux in France. It was also the location of intense passions--love, envy, and revenge. Between 1515-1521, nobleman Thomas Bohier razed the medieval fortress on the site and built a graceful new residence, where he entertained the king on several occasions. In 1535, François I seized the property in payment for outstanding debts. After he died, his son Henri II gifted the palace to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who built an arched bridge to the far bank and added extensive gardens. Henri's wife, Catherine de Médici, long envied the property; as soon as Henri died in 1559, she forced Diane to exchange Chenonceaux for the Château de Chaumont.

Chaumont. Photo credit: Tim Tim

Chenonceaux became Catherine's favorite residence, the one from which she administered the kingdom as Regent during her young son's reign. She built the enclosed gallery atop the bridge in 1577 and hosted elaborate parties and spectacles at the property. When Catherine died in 1589, she left the château to her daughter-in-law, wife of Henri III, who lived there in mourning for eleven years after Henri was assassinated months after his mother's death. From the love trysts of Henri II and Diane, to the showdown between Diane and the widowed Catherine, to Catherine's machinations behind the throne, to the haunted widowhood of Louise de Lorraine, the stones of Chenonceaux have witnessed their fair share of riveting intrigue.

Finally, we come to the Château de Fontainebleau, my personal favorite. Fontainebleau played a central role in history during the sixteenth century and beyond. François always considered Fontainebleau his true home. It was this château that he transformed into the showplace of the French Renaissance, building and embellishing the structure with the help of Italian artists he invited to live and work there. François housed his art collection at Fontainebleau, along with the massive library (the backbone of the Bibliothèque Nationale) he transferred from Blois. Fontainebleau seethed with competition, as artists vied for commissions, courtiers for preference, and lovers for favor. François hosted his longtime enemy Charles V of Spain at Fontainebleau in December 1539 in an attempt to shore up their tottering truce. Against a lavish backdrop of banquets and balls, pageants and hunts, the two monarchs grappled for ascendancy. The perfect setting for a historical novel, one that pits François's beloved ideal of honor against the grittier realities of gaining, and keeping, power.

Add to these amazing châteaux teeming cities like Paris and Lyon and one can claim without doubt that the sixteenth century offers an exciting array of settings for gripping historical fiction.


Be sure to circle back and read Reasons #1-#7 for reading historical fiction set in sixteenth century France: ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZHISTORY, and FRANCE.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #7

Today's reason almost goes without saying...

Reason #7--FRANCE

France is the most popular travel destination in the world, visited by 89 million foreign tourists in 2018 alone. The country's vineyards 



and vibrant cities 

tug at the hearts and pursestrings of enthusiastic travelers and compilers of bucket lists the world over. Paris tops New York on lists of "Most Visited Cities" and flaunts its undisputed title as the "Most Romantic." Its cultural attractions, like the Musée du Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Arc de Triomphe, as well as its luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, and outdoor cafés, are a perennial draw. For well-seasoned travelers and armchair dreamers alike, France holds a distinctive and dynamic appeal. 

This fascination with France carries over into literature. A quick search on Amazon turns up 50,000 entries for "France--Fiction and Literature" and 30,000 for "Paris--Fiction and Literature."

Goodreads lists hundreds of books set in France and Paris. Recent bestsellers such as Kristin Hannah's THE NIGHTINGALE, Anthony Doerr's ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Paula McClain's THE PARIS WIFE, and Nina George's THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP witness to the immense popularity of a French setting. During these locked-down, travel-verboten pandemic days, readers are hungry to read about places they cannot explore.

What is it about France that captures the interest and seals the loyalty of its admirers? It might be the country's varied geography and scenic beauty. It might be its rich history, which encompasses the glory of a medieval kingdom, the quest for liberty and equality during the Revolution, and the Resistance's struggles against the evils of Nazism. It could be France's artistic and literary culture, which has contributed countless masterpieces to the world's canon and produced luminaries like Proust and Hugo and Matisse and Monet. It might very well be the joie-de-vivre that animates daily life and compliments the strong vein of scepticism that characterizes the French spirit. Perhaps, in the end, it is nothing more than bread and cheese and pastries. Elements of all these things create the timeless allure that is France--an allure that historical fiction acknowledges and indulges and prolongs.

Did you miss Reasons #1-#6? Read them here: ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZ, HISTORY.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #6

ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZ are the factors we've examined so far. Now it's time for one that, though obvious, nevertheless deserves attention...

Reason #6--HISTORY

In today's educational landscape, the study of history hardly occupies a prominent position. With so many other subjects clamoring for attention, history often gets shunted aside. Yet the study of history is essential to the healthy functioning of a modern republic. An old aphorism holds that "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." A thorough understanding of history prepares a country to move confidently into the future, equipped to identify challenges and hazards and able to address them without making costly, avoidable mistakes. Familiarity with the past also helps individuals define and select the ideals and aspirations they wish to live by and strive for.

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Reading historical fiction is an effective way to supplement the formal study of history. Some might object that it would be more valuable to read nonfiction about historical topics instead of novels, but fiction offers some distinct advantages in a non-academic setting. First of all, it is more readily accessible to a wider range of readers. Readers who seek entertainment are more likely to pick up a novel than a history tome that might uncomfortably remind them of schoolwork. As they engage with characters and follow the twists and turns of the plot, however, they absorb the factual information that infuses the story--a real-life example of a spoonful of sugar helping medicine go down! Their encounter with historical events and characters in the novel might pique their curiosity and send them to nonfiction sources to learn more. In any case, the reader has been introduced to historical material they might never have chanced upon otherwise. The historical novel serves as a gateway into deeper knowledge of and appreciation for history.

Secondly, reading historical fiction allows readers to discover the eras, events, and individuals that truly interest them. Historical fiction covers a wide range of countries and time periods. Readers can benefit from this plethora of options by sampling different combinations of settings, eras, and narrative techniques. Some readers like biographical fiction, which dramatizes the life of a prominent historical personnage; others prefer to read about fictional characters acting in a historical setting defined by historical events. Battle fiction interests one type of reader; novels told from the perspective of women or the marginalized speak to another. Nonfiction history books are often quite specific and compartmentalized, making it difficult for non-academic readers to locate general interest books about a certain era. Reading historical fiction provides a quicker entry into the historical scene. Readers can enjoy a novel whether or not they they come to it with previous knowledge of the time period, and will most likely leave it knowing more about the era or person than they did before. 

Finally, and most importantly, historical fiction offers readers something that non-fiction cannot--access to the thoughts and emotions of historical characters. Whereas history teaches facts--names, dates, ideologies, and events, historical fiction allows readers to explore people's relationship to those facts. It gives a human face to history by imagining how people caught up in historical events might have reacted to them. How did a galley slave preserve his sanity during endless days of forced rowing? What might cause one neighbor to denounce another who embraced the reformed religion? How might a skilled female artist or poet in the Renaissance flourish, despite the disdain of male practicioners? Historians are discouraged from postulating the thoughts and emotions of the subjects they write about; the novelist, on the other hand, builds a story out of the very things the historian is forced to omit. In a novel, the historical context provides a challenge, a set of boundaries and conditions, which characters must confront and overcome in historically appropriate ways. The historical element that lovers of historical fiction prize is not an end in itself, but serves to highlight the resilience and breadth of the human spirit. In a historical novel, the history is not the story; how the characters both shape and are shaped by that history is.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #5

Time for some fun. In our examination of historical fiction, we've discussed weighty matters like RELEVANCE, DRAMA, and EMOTION. Today we're going to circle back to ESCAPE and explore...

Reason #5--GLITZ

Okay, I'll admit it. I originally fell for the sixteenth century as a teenager, and for two reasons--the clothes and the castles. What better way to escape the humdrum of Midwestern suburbia than to dream of being a princess in a magnificent château? Over the years, my appreciation for the sixteenth century deepened, but I can't deny that the beauty and elegance of the Renaissance still tickles my fancy. Clothes, jewels, tableware--even everyday items added to the glamour of an era filled with pagentry.

With modern life rarely ever presenting an opportunity for fancy dress, who can help but be enchanted by the elaborate fashions and luxurious fabrics of the Renaissance? 

François (1497-1547) insisted on a fashionably dressed court and often ordered--and paid for--gowns and accessories for his favorite ladies. He prized the fine silks and velvets produced in Italy and imported into France at the quarterly fairs in Lyon. In 1540, he granted Lyon a monopoly on raw silk imports, fueling the court's appetite for luxury fabric and ensuring that some of these gorgeous fabrics could be produced at home (view extant Italian samples here). 

I'm not sure how comfortable any of these clothes were, but they definitely delighted the eyes!

Of course, fine clothes must be paired with exquisite jewels. Gold- and silversmiths created stunning pieces from gemstones and pearls imported from the Far East and Africa. Every courtier winked and glittered. Jewels could be sewn directly to the fabric of gowns and doublets

or set into fanciful gold and silver pendants.

Men and women alike wore concentric circles of gold chains that dangled to their waists, rigid collar-like necklaces called carcanets, and jewelled collars that stretched from shoulder to shoulder.

Brooches, jeweled ribbons, and rings dazzled; hats and even hair were adorned with bling.

Being all dressed up with nowhere to go was never a problem for the Renaissance courtier; these courts knew how to party. Kings kept their courtiers busy hunting, dancing, feasting, and processing. Gowns and jewels could be shown off at balls,

royal entries,

and an endless stream of fêtes and festivals, held both indoors and out. 

François, for example, hosted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on a multi-stage state journey through France in 1539, featuring days-long celebrations at Fontainebleau and Paris. Catherine de Medici arranged festivities and tournaments in Bayonne in 1565 during Charles IX's royal progress and threw a ball for the Polish ambassador at the Tuileries in 1573. There was never a shortage of activities, and the courtiers in attendance were expected to reflect the monarchs' glory in their own elaborate dress.

At feasts, servants poured wine from Venetian glass pitchers

and served food from enameled and majolica platters, works of art in their own right.

Courtiers ate delicacies like stuffed peacock, marzipan, seasonal fruits, and roasted game with silver Italian forks as they conversed and flirted and competed for favor.

Material culture during thte sixteenth century had an opulence and abundance quite different from today's more spare and streamlined tastes. The challenge for the novelist is to make this profusion of color, pattern, scent and texture real for the reader without overwhelming. Done well, the evocation of the Renaissance court can provide a reader of historical fiction a complete and fascinating escape from everyday twenty-first century life, one where she can experience unfamiliar beauty in a new and exciting way. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #4

ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, and DRAMA--these are the reasons I've examined so far to promote historical fiction set in what scholars call the "Early Modern" era. Today, we'll talk about...

Reason #4: EMOTION

Although manners and mores have changed over the centuries, basic human emotions have not, and emotion is what drives fiction. Love, rage, guilt, spite--such emotions define the human experience. Whether a character wears spandex yoga pants or an embroidered bodice, tees off on the fairway or parries a sword blow matters much less to readers than the emotions the character experiences. 

Current scientific research indicates that reading literary fiction increases empathy in readers--by placing themselves in the minds of characters and viewing a fictional world from an unfamiliar perspective, readers become more adept at putting themselves in other people's shoes in real life. The most powerful way readers connect with characters is through shared emotion. Reading a character's emotional experience on the page stirs readers' own emotional memories. This thrill of recognition forms a bond between reader and character, one that encourages the reader to follow that character into an exploration of other emotions that might not be as familiar. As they identify with characters through shared emotional experience, readers come to reconsider their own past experience in more nuanced ways. They not only increase their ability to connect with other people, but they broaden the spectrum of their own remotional response.

By reading novels set in the distant past, readers can experience certain emotions in a more intense way than modern life usually affords. In the sixteenth century, the world was a dangerous and often brutal place, both physically and socially. Emotions like terror, humiliation, and shame, which are seldom experienced today, were common responses to unsettling and unexpected events. Hiding as enemy soldiers ransacked your town and ravished your neighbors' daughters must have inspired a fear quite unlike that of watching the value of your 401k slide. Saying goodbye to a navigator husband boarding a leaky galleon for a voyage to the New World was infintely more traumatic that dropping your spouse off at the airport for a business trip. Being ostracized as an adulterer or tortured for your religious beliefs hardly compares to wagging tongues and cancel culture. Reading historical fiction set in the sixteenth century provides us an opportunity to experience strong sentiments we might never feel in our real lives, thereby allowing us to expand our emotional literacy and our ability to empathize.

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Even as historical fiction allows us to experience the intensity of these emotions, however, it protects us from their real-life consequences. We can cringe in horror as a heretic burns at the stake without entangling ourselves in debate over whether such punishment is justified. We can experience the joy of a child's sudden recovery from illness without having to evaluate and choose among treatments. We can indulge in the thrill of an illicit love without worrying about the destiny of our souls. Sheltered from the repercussions of the emotions depicted, we can indulge in them with abandon, strengthening our capacity to understand what others think and feel. Ultimately, by observing how actions trigger emotions and emotions inspire actions in the novel, we learn how to control our own emotions, the better to direct the course of our lives. The fiction serves as a heady and gratifying but ultimately cautionary tale--one that delights and entertains, even as it teaches.

The perilous and precarious world of sixteenth century historical fiction will take readers from the heights of ecstasy and glory to the depths of cruelty and despair, acquainting them with envy, lust, indignation, hatred, fear, joy, courage, and love along the way. It leaves but a single emotion untried, the one readers are most eager to avoid: boredom.