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!

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