The Confessions of Catherine de Medici: A Novel
Reading the work of a truly talented author is a well-savored delight for a book lover. When it comes to the art of writing, C. W. Gortner’s name can be added to the list of master craftsmen. He duly creates a riveting drama that is seamlessly blended into a litany of historical facts that in the hands of someone less capable could have become a tangled web. Instead The Confessions of Catherine de Medici draws the reader into the French court of the fourteenth century as if the protagonist herself was beckoning with her bejeweled hand.
The story unfolds as Catherine takes a look back at her life, offering her confessions in the form of a tell-all memoir. Her now infamous surname—de Medici—is both a blessing and a curse. Having risen from the merchant class, the Medicis came to embody the superfluous excess of Italy’s wealthiest family and this makes her the target of the disapproving clergy and a capricious citizenry. Yet the name still bespeaks an implied wealth, and the second son of France, Henri, is offered in betrothal for her supposed riches. Only the joke is on the royal family when Catherine’s alleged dowry fails to materialize.
Catherine arrives at court in much the same way that Sofia Coppola envisions the introduction of Marie Antoinette: She is stripped of everything pertaining to her native Italy and is instructed that she is now a daughter of France. As a teenager alone in a foreign land, her naiveté is apparent. Her debut into the world of power and intrigue is as soft as a whisper. Luckily, Henri’s father feels protective of the young girl, even if his son prefers the amorous company of his former governess. It is through the undue influence of this older rival that Catherine and Henri come together to produce an heir in the most unnatural of circumstances.
When Henri assumes the throne after the death of his father and elder brother, he comes to realize the inherent strength in Catherine’s character. From her very core, she emanates the elemental qualities essential in a leader. The two may have been brought together in a marriage of wealth and power, but as their relationship matures they are able to view each other as partners, friends, and even passionate lovers.
With Henri’s unexpected death—foretold by the reputed seer Nostradamus—the kingdom is left in her hands. Her job is to safeguard it for her sons. The first is François, a child prince who is raised with the tremendous pressure of bearing the responsibility of being a leader in training. He marries Mary, Queen of Scots, his childhood playmate whom he views more as a sister. The two never consummate their union, and François, who has always suffered from poor health, succumbs under the strain, dying without an heir. The second is Charles who becomes so consumed with guilt for the blood spilled in the power struggle between French Protestants and French Catholics that he commits suicide. The third is Henri, the golden child whom Catherine believes to be the king France so desperately needs. Alas, when it is revealed that Henri prefers the company of men to women, Catherine fears that he, too, will die without an heir. Will all of her planning come to naught?
Catherine was viewed by her contemporaries as the wicked queen mother. England’s Queen Elizabeth is recorded as saying that Catherine was the only person she ever feared. Yet Gortner presents a softer picture of a mama bear protecting her cubs rather than a ruthless puppet master pulling the strings. Catherine ardently loved her adopted country of France and did everything in her power to maintain peace through freedom of religious expression. When deemed necessary, she arranged the marriages of her children to promote alliances that offered protection. She used diplomacy when dealing with the highly charged emotions of religious fanaticism. Yet if the only solution was the quick demise of her enemies, she did not hesitate to use lethal force.
As portrayed in the TV series, “The Tudors,” life at court is not for the faint of heart. In fact, Catherine’s heart is the focus of Coligny, a leader in the French Protestant movement. It is a treacherous position to be in as the queen mother of a Catholic France. Does desire cloud reason? Are Coligny’s feelings for Catherine heartfelt or simply a ploy? Are their passionate interludes appropriate as violence and terror ransack the land?
Get ready, as Catherine is ready to make her final confession.