While wandering through the Internet Movie Database a while back, I found myself looking up one of my favourite movies, the incredible La Reine Margot (Queen Margot). I was surprised to find it was based on a story by Alexandre Dumas — unfortunately I got lumped with Shakespeare instead of Dumas in school. I’d always meant to read his books and this decided me. So off to the bookshop I go — discovering that it’s not one of his easier books to get hold of — eventually finding a copy online.
In 1572, with Renaissance France torn apart by a religious war, an alliance between the warring factions is proposed with the marriage of Marguerite de Valois — sister of the reigning Charles XI — and Henry of Navarre.
With so many Protestants in Paris to celebrate the marriage, Charles XI is persuaded that they pose a threat to the throne and orders the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day — an ethnic cleansing of epic proportions.
The newly married couple, aware that one, if not both, of them were to have been victims of the general carnage, form a political alliance — to support each other above all else.
This is the incredible introduction to a 22 month period of French history, filled with intrigue, murder and duplicity, that Alexandre Dumas has immortalised in La Reine Margot.
From the conniving Catherine de Medicis — a powerful woman who held the reigns of power in France as regent during the minority of both Francois II and Charles XI — who fears Henry of Navarre will succeed her sons for the crown of France.
To the beautiful and learned Marguerite de Valois — called Margot by her brother Charles — a woman torn between duty to her husband and King and loyalty to her lover.
And the loyal de La Mole — Margot’s lover — a man willing to go to any lengths to serve his Queen and mistress.
Dumas characters are unforgettable. Margot and Henry are heroic in stature, yet plagued by ambiguities and character flaws that both humanise and endear them. And it is these flaws that make them even more memorable.
The society of the Royal court is fascinating. The women of the court were notorious predators — being a mistress was likely the only way of gaining power and directly influencing current politics — and often had multiple lovers. But it is the youth of the people that caught me by surprise; Margot is 20, Henry of Navarre is 19, Charles XI is 22 and Catherine de Medicis, portrayed as a crone, is only 54, yet managed to produce ten children for her husband, Henry II, prior to his death.
Dumas takes great poetic license with the history, blending fact, drama and fiction together in a captivating story that will leave you breathless.
La Reine Margot was original published in serial format between 1844 and 1845 — that’s a quarter of a million words over a three month period. An impressive enough feat, rendered even more so when you consider his other commitments of The Count of Monte Cristo, Le Guerre des Femmes and Twenty Years After that were concurrently in production.
My only real complaint is the frightening politeness of dialogue between the characters, which I assume to be a style very much in vogue in the 19th century. It’s perfectly understandable and nothing is lost in the reading, I just found it a little disconcerting during the violent and bloody battle scenes. It is very reminiscent of dialogue in Musketeers movies — funny that — instead of the very graphic atrocities depicted in the film version, Queen Margot.
For a novel written a century and half ago, this is a surprisingly easy and compelling read. The characterisations are strong, the plot intricate and the historical and cultural references give an in depth view of 16th century France.
If you’ve seen the movie, or are a Dumas fan by way of The Three Musketeers or his other works, you will love this book. And if it’s your first dabble into the world of Dumas, like me, you’ll find yourself eager to get your paws on more of his books.
Published Epinions — 12.09.2000
Book available from Amazon and Amazon UK.