History...but not quite as we know it

When you're feeling down, I find that sinking yourself into a lengthy Victorian novel can be the way to go. At their best they can be totally immersive (witness my Waterloo experience when reading Vanity Fair towards the end of last year). Dumas' La Reine Margot is not of the quality of Vanity Fair, but if you want a completely engrossing read, this is the sort of book that drags the reader into the novel screaming and kicking and firmly refuses to let them go.

Set around the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the novel traces the early marriage of the eponymous, Queen Margot, younger sister of King Charles IX of France. It was Charles, who ordered the massacre at the instigation of his mother, Catherine de' Medici, one of history's great all-time wicked women (see the Wikipedia account for a rather more measured approach). Determined to maintain the Valois line Catherine would do anything to keep the French throne including murder by a variety of methods, but chiefly poison, her personal speciality. From gloves to (quite literally) poisonous books, Catherine is your go-to expert (even if it does sometimes go rather wrong).

Margot is fated for a loveless marriage with Henry of Navarre, and the occasion of their marriage also enables the massacre to take place. Margot though is at least as adroit as her mother when involved in politics, and although there may be little love lost between her and Henry, their unlikely alliance makes them stronger together. There's plenty of swashbuckling and (discreet) bodice ripping in the novel, along with a good dash of murder, superstition and some very dark practices. All of which makes for a thrilling, if sometimes unintentionally comic, read.

The characters are all larger than life, and most are fairly unbelievable, though I loved Henry of Navarre who was one of the few characters who emerged fully formed.

As far as the history side was concerned I was enthralled by that too. Not least because I have Huguenot ancestry, so I'm sure the events of the period would have been of enormous importance to them. One warning here though, Dumas does play fast and loose both with some of the timing of events, and (for romantic effect) with some of the characters involved. You wouldn't want to read La Reine Margot thinking that you're going to get an historically accurate novel; but for a real sensation for what it must have been like to live through these times, it takes a bit of beating.

It's an exciting, engrossing read, and, for Dumas, surprisingly compact. I read it in the Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by David Coward, using a Victorian translation. The notes and introduction are extremely helpful and give a rather better rounded description of the period. Also worth seeing (if you haven't already done so) is Patrice Chereau's 1994 film, which managed to be both beautiful and bloody; with stand-out performances from Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil.


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