Bookinista book review: ‘The Rival Queens,’ by Nancy Goldstone
Just when you thought global politics couldn’t get dirtier, Nancy Goldstone releases a dual biography of women who rocked the volatile 16th-century world with murder and mayhem; coups, blackmail and treason; and crazy sexual escapades.
The Elizabethan Age was in full swing across the English Channel, where rigid Queen Elizabeth I was building an empire. A lassie named Mary, who would become Queen of Scots, was frolicking happily in France. In a retaliatory mood from the Crusades, the Ottomans were littering Eastern Europe with the corpses of anyone who didn’t embrace Islam. And in Italy, one of the most insightful political writers of all time, Machiavelli, was dedicating to Catherine’s father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, a work called The Prince. In it, he espoused the ends justifying the means, which could have been Catherine de’ Medici’s motto.
The mother-daughter duo of de’ Medici and de Valois were locked in a dysfunctional relationship of extremes. The licentious mores of the day hypocritically coexisted with the religious dogma that pitted Catholics against Huguenots. (In case religious history isn’t a strong suit, Huguenots were early Calvinists, similar to the Puritans who fled England on the Mayflower.) As influence flipped back and forth between the factions, Catherine used her children as pawns in the power game, and her daughters’ value was measured in their marriageability.
“The Rival Queens” opens with Queen Catherine inviting her soon-to-be son-in-law and his pals to a wedding. The strained, extravagant event begins with a reluctant bride and ends in the mass murder of the groom and his party. Given the de’ Medici family’s historic talent for carnage, the scene is an appropriate introduction.
Once Goldstone establishes homely Catherine’s unstable early years, her humiliation by her husband’s lover (the swan-like Diane de Poitiers), and the backbiting intrigue for which the French court was famous, the spotlight shifts.
The book belongs to Marguerite. Although not conventionally gorgeous in the curly-golden-haired style that was in vogue, she was an intellectual and a beauty. And the princess was a quick study, a life-saving skill during a time of shifting camps, family betrayals and near-daily upheaval.
Goldstone accords Marguerite the wisdom and common sense that her record merits. Often, a woman recorded as beautiful never moves beyond that stereotype, and historians and biographers seem to struggle with the combination of brains and beauty. But Goldstone examines both attributes, creating an empowering depiction of a tough survivor who could wear a tiara and negotiate a treaty with the best of them.
“The Rival Queens” is well written and thoroughly researched. It reads more like a novel than a biography — and that can be a good thing. While some biographies contain more facts and less speculation than “The Rival Queens,” few make the historic machinations of the time as easy to understand. And Goldstone carefully distinguishes between multiple characters with similar or identical names, such as Henri, or Francis and Francois, thus saving the reader from stumbling back and forth between genealogy and story.
Even though the 2016 election is a blip on the Eagle County horizon as presidential candidates jostle for position this summer, “The Rival Queens” is a great cautionary note about the subterfuges that can be involved in the pursuit of power. And certainly Goldstone’s book reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
“The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom” is available at The Bookworm of Edwards and other booksellers.
Eagle County resident NLB Horton (NLBHorton.com) is an award-winning author of two successful works of international suspense, “When Camels Fly” and “The Brothers’ Keepers.” Both are available at The Bookworm of Edwards and at other booksellers, and her third book will be released in 2016.