If you’ve been following my reviews of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series about medieval France, you’ve probably seen me use the phrase “nest of vipers.” La Reine Margot, set a couple of centuries later, is just as full of intrigues, infidelities, betrayals, and even poisonings.
It is 1572, and the French court is celebrating the inexplicable marriage of Marguerite of Valois (Margot) to Henry of Navarre. France is at the height of the wars between Catholic and Huguenot, and Charles IX has proposed the union between his sister and the leader of the Huguenots purportedly to further peace.
Soon, though, we find out that the wedding is a trap for the leading Huguenots planned by Charles and his evil mother Catherine de Medicis. (Note that throughout I spell names as they were in the book.) For that evening of St. Bartholomew’s Day, troops are sent out all over Paris to massacre the Huguenots, who are in town for the wedding.
Thinking to rid himself of an enemy in Henry of Navarre, Charles has not considered his sister. Even though she and Henry are not romantically attached, the two have sworn to support each other. When Henry is trapped in the Louvre with the royal family, a combination of Margot’s support and his recanting saves his life. Margot has also rescued a young wounded Huguenot, La Mole, from the slaughter, providing a romantic subplot for the novel.
So begins the novel about how Henry of Navarre, aided by Margot, survives the machinations of the Valois family. The rumor is that Catherine recently murdered Henry’s mother by poisoning her, and Catherine also works in charms and horoscopes. Charles IX is unstable, first mistrusting Henry and then treating him like a brother. Henry d’Anjou, Charles’ brother, detests Henry of Navarre and thinks he is a threat to d’Anjou’s own right to the throne after his brother. François d’Alençon, the other brother, wavers in his decision to ally with Navarre.
Dumas was a writer of the Romantic movement, which de-emphasized rationality and emphasized emotion. The romantic plot involves the love affair between Margot and the naive and gallant La Mole, who is drawn into danger because of his love and religion.
My Oxford World Classics edition was fortified with copious notes, including information about which events were true and which were invented. Dumas is prone to using real people in his historical romances, and it was just a little off-putting to discover, for example, that the real La Mole was not a gallant Huguenot but a fundamentalist Catholic who was responsible for many murders during the massacre. Still, I found the real stories as fascinating as the novel.
If you like a fast-moving adventure that also involves political maneuvering, this is a good book for you. I was more interested in the nerve and political agility of Navarre than I was in the romance, but I still enjoyed the novel.
One caution—an abbreviated version of this novel is available as Marguerite of Valois. I have not read it, but if you want the more complete novel, look for La Reine Margot. (Yes, it is in English but also in French, so be careful if you order it online.)