Tag Archives: women’s history

Reading History: “Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women”

Any time that you have a historical fiction novel co-written by the likes of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, and Laura Kamoie, you are guaranteed to have a rousing read about some truly kick-ass women.

And that is just what you get in Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women.

The novel is divided into six different sections and an epilogue. Each chapter focuses on a different character, ranging from peasants to aristocrats. As a result, we get a keen sense of the many different types of women who played such crucial roles in this pivotal historical moments. Most of the characters are women who took an active part in the Revolution and committed themselves to the cause of overturning the old order and creating something new, a political order founded on the fundamental principle of equality. These are women who aren’t afraid to write and to think and to protest, even when the powers that be would much rather have them stick to the roles that were considered appropriate for women.

One exception to this is the Princess Élisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI and a devout royalist. While she comes across as a very proud and stubborn woman–hardly surprising, given her upbringing–it’s also hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for her plight, caught as she is in a world that doesn’t understand. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for each of the characters, since so many of them are caught up in the gears of history.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this novel was the way in which the authors managed to twine together the various strands into a cohesive whole. To my mind, this is no small accomplishment, given the fact that you have some of the finest talents in historical fiction writing several different stories. The novel is roughly chronological, so that you have a sense of the way in which the Revolution unfolded, its highs and its lows, and its ultimate descent into the worst forms of barbarism and self-destruction (the infamous Robespierre makes an appearance).

I’ve always had a rather ambivalent relationship to the French Revolution, and reading this novel has reminded me of why this is the case. For, although that great historical event began with the loftiest of political and philosophical ambitions, all too quickly it began its descent into barbarism and bloodshed. And, as this novel makes clear, some of the first–and very often the most easily-targeted–victims of such violence were the women. Time and again, we witness these powerful and intelligent women persecuted by the very men who should be on their side, subjected to every sort of ignominy and humiliation. At the same time, it is precisely their willingness and their ability to persevere despite all of these setbacks that makes these women such extraordinary figures in history and thus an inspiration to those who live in the present.

It should be noted that this novel is not necessarily for the faint-of-heart. It doesn’t shy away from the more brutal turns of the Revolution–including the infamous use of the guillotine–and there are some truly tragic and heart-wrenching moments when characters are forced to confront their own dreadful mortality. There is a scene very near the end where one of the prime characters is awaiting her time at the guillotine, and I have to admit that I choked up when she had to contend with the reality that she was soon to meet her death. It’s one of the most exquisitely painful scenes that I’ve read in a historical fiction novel.

Despite the dark turns that the novel takes, one is still left with the feeling that, for those women who were so intimately involved in it, the French Revolution promised something more than their lives had possessed before. The novel does an excellent job conveying just how bifurcated French society had become on the eave of this great upheaval, with a yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots (doesn’t this sound more than a little like our current moment?) Given the way that the nobility–and, of course, the royalty–refused to see the truth staring them right in the face, it’s hardly surprising that French society eventually ignited into a conflagration that ultimately couldn’t be controlled. History, though, is like that, sometimes, moments of seeming stasis that erupt into destructive chaos seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Indeed, even after the darkest parts of the Revolution are over, Sophie–the philosopher–is still struggling to make sense of what has taken place. In the eloquently-written epilogue, she is left to try to put together at least a few of the pieces of shattered world that the Revolution has left behind. Indeed, one of my favorite scenes in the novel occurs near the very end, when Sophie confronts the man who would go on to be the opposite of everything that the Revolution had supposedly stood for: Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The fact that she dares to challenge the man who would come to be one of the titans of his age is a fitting conclusion to a novel full of characters who are larger than life, striding across the stage of history.

Overall, I found myself utterly enraptured by Ribbons of Scarlet. Much as I wanted to savor every delicious, blood-soaked, tragic moment of it, I found that I simply couldn’t. I suspect that there will be many others out there who will devour it as quickly as I did. In my book, there is no greater measure of how good a book truly is. Ribbons of Scarlet shows us just how important women are to the workings of history, and for that reason alone it is worth reading and celebrating.

The only question that remains is: when will we get another collaborative novel from these fantastic authors? I suppose we’ll just have to be patient!

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!

Reading History: “Medicis Daughter” (by Sophie Perinot)

Warning:  Some spoilers for the plot follow.

Thanks to the great folks over at NetGalley, I recently had the chance to read Sophie Perinot’s newest historical novel, Medicis Daughter, which chronicles the life and loves of Marguerite of Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medicis who, through an advantageous marriage, would ultimately become (for a time) Queen of France.  The novel, however, focuses mainly on the time before her fateful marriage to Henri, the King of Navarre, a noted Protestant and thus key to her family’s plans for holding France together.

At the time of the novel’s opening, Marguerite’s family has been beset again and again by tragedy, first by the untimely death of her father and then her eldest brother Francois, and her brother Charles now occupies the throne.  As a young daughter of marriageable age, Margot (her nickname) is a valuable pawn in her family’s hands, and she is soon courted by kings and princes alike, including the King of Spain (the widower of Margot’s sister) and the young King of Portugal, until she is finally married to her cousin Henri.

Marguerite is not always the easiest character to like.  While the entire novel is told from her perspective, there are times when you just want to slap her for the silly (and sometimes politically disastrous) choices that she makes, including her passionate affair with Henri, the Duc de Guise.  And yet, one can also not really blame her for some of the things she does.  Confronted with the reality that she cannot but do as she is commanded, that her life choices are constantly circumscribed by the men and women around her (particularly her brother and her mother), and even by the events that threaten to plunge all of France into continued religious chaos, she strikes out in whatever ways she can devise.

Thus, where the novel most succeeds is in showing the ways in which Marguerite resists (sometimes more effectively than at others) the whims of the people around her:  her often weak, vacillating, and vengeful brother Charles, her ardent and incestuous brother Anjou, and her terrifying mother Catherine.  Through ways both large and small, she attempts to make her own way, even when that means bringing down the wrath of her various family members upon her head.  For example, her brother Henri, overcome with his carnal desire for her, successfully turns her own mother against her.  Truly, this is a nest of serpents, and it is all Margot can do to survive.

While Marguerite is indeed the novel’s center, I would suggest that Catherine emerges as just as compelling a character as her daughter, though the novel does not paint her in a very flattering light.  And yet, if one looks beyond the surface, one can see the ways in which the novel also wants us to, indirectly at least, understand the world that could produce a woman like her.  Having scratched and clawed her way into power despite all of the obstacles in her path, it is even easy to understand why Catherine would deny her daughter those same qualities.  She more than anyone else realizes the political necessities of the world they live in, and these realities have hardened her until she sees no other way to be other than political.  Denied love and any semblance of political power by her husband, is it any wonder that she will do anything to maintain it once he is dead and her weak sons successively occupy the throne?

While the novel focuses mainly on the young Valois princess’s experiences, it does make clear the pivotal role that she played as the daughter of one of the great houses of Europe.  It is important to remember that the French Wars of Religion were some of the most tumultuous and deadly in European history, as almost everyone, from the highest monarch to the lowest peasant, had to choose which way to salvation they would take.  Marguerite thus becomes another pawn in the great games of power being waged around her, a fate that she attempts to resist even as she recognizes the limits of her own agency.

All in all, Perinot has managed to bring another historically underappreciated woman into the modern world, allowing us a glimpse into the way that her mind might have worked and how she might have encountered the world she lived in and experienced on a day to day basis.  Perinot, like other great historical novelists currently working today, allows us to see, and at least partially understood, this extraordinary Renaissance woman, and we can but hope that she will continue to chronicle the rest of Margot’s eventul life in French politics.

Score:  9/10

Review: “Reign” (CW)

Like most people, I went into the premiere of the CW series Reign with more than a little trepidation.  After all, this network doesn’t have a good reputation as far as the “quality TV” department is concerned.  However, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I found, namely:  a decent cast (Megan Fellows threatens to steal the show as the villainous, cunning, yet somewhat sympathetic Catherine de’Medici), acting that wasn’t horrible, and some adherence to the historical record.  Though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who enjoyed The Tudors (I did, for the record) or Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (I enjoyed that too), will probably enjoy Reign.

Before we go any further, let me just say that yes, I realize that the costuming is laughably anachronistic.  But hey, it’s pretty much that way with any historical drama, though admittedly some take at least a little more effort to adhere to a sense of authenticity, even if they don’t adhere to strictly the dress code of the era.  And yes, I also realize that the characters are not acting like men and women of that period would have acted.  All of that said, there are other aspects of the series that make it worth watching and, just perhaps, taking seriously as at least a type of history.

Two things stood out the most in the premiere.  The first of these is the fact that Mary (ably if not superbly played by Adelaide Kane) may be more than a little smitten with the charming, dashing, and dishy Francis (Toby Regbo), but she also has a streak of iron in her that she will definitely need as she struggles to survive in the deceptive and dangerous French court.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a female character that had a little bit of backbone and, furthermore, that she is willing and able to stand up to those who seek to put her down, including Francis.  Though he tells her in no uncertain terms that she is to be seen and not heard, and that his concern for France will always come before his affections for her, she pertly reminds him that she, too, has a country to keep in mind.  While a seemingly insignificant moment, it reveals two things:  one, that the series has at least some awareness of the fact that royals couldn’t just love like everyone else and two, that this Mary might have a bit of spirit and bite to her.

The second thing that stood out in the premiere was the splendidly and sweetly poisonous Catherine, Mary’s scheming mother-in-law.  Having been advised by her pet astrologer Nostradamus that Mary will bring about the death of her beloved son Francis, Catherine makes it her mission to ruin the marriage arranged between the two young royals.  I was prepared to find this Catherine cloying, but instead she threatens to steal the series from its ostensible lead.  Indeed, we cannot help but sympathize with her (at least a little), considering that her husband is openly having an affair with Diane de Poitiers, not to mention any other woman he can get his hands on.  What’s more, her antipathy toward Mary stems at least in part from her conviction that the young Scotswoman will lead to her son’s death.  All in all, she comes across as a woman who knows the place that her society, and her husband, have afforded her and, as such, also knows what she has to do in order to assert what little agency is allowed her.

What emerges from these two women is an indication of how 21st Century American culture conceives of the past and, particularly, the role that women played in that past.  Much as with The Tudors and its successor The Borgias (as well as other countless television historical dramas), Reign asserts that Renaissance women’s only access to power was through their men, i.e. through the marshaling of their sexual desirability to bend men to their will.  While this does of course run the risk of essentalizing these women as nothing more than walking vaginas, I would contend that there is a hidden complexity here, an open acknowledgment of the fact that, unfortunately, patriarchy often forces women to rely on the only weapons that patriarchy lets them have, their cunning and their bodies (and often a combination of the two).  The trick, of course, is how to bring this unfortunate fact to life without merely replicating the mechanisms of that oppression.  At this point, it is far too early to say whether Reign will plumb such complexities—as did The Tudors, at least in its highest and most compelling moments—but it has certainly gotten off to a good start.  There are at least two strong female leads to give the show a center of gravity, which is one of the essential ingredients to a truly and satisfyingly complex portrayal of historical women’s subjectivity.  Don’t worry, though, this feminist media critic will be right there to nail them if they start to betray the promise that they have shown already.

Is Reign historically accurate or even authentic?  Absolutely and unequivocally not.  As is usual with such series, the people are far too pretty and clean to be accurate representations of what life was like in the 16th Century, even for royalty.  There is also the strand of the supernatural that has already reared its head (this could end up working really well or just being corny).  However, to ask those kinds of questions, and to condemn a series or a film for failing to live up to those standards, risks losing sight of exactly those issues I have touched upon in this review.  Sure, Reign might not be “good” history (whatever that means) but, whether we like it or not, it is a type of history, and we as cultural critics and consumers would be well served to ask and interpret exactly what kind of history it is that we are looking at.