Tuesday, October 14, 2008

La Reine Margot ~ Alexander Dumas

La Reine Margot is a novel by Alexandre Dumas, known for such classics as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, that relates a complex tale of murder, intrigue, love, and loyalty during the reign of Charles IX of France. The novel begins with the wedding celebrations of the title character, Marguerite de Valois, affectionately called "Margot" by her brother King Charles, who is joined in a politically motivated and loveless marriage to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. During the course of the festivities, the military strength of Charles' Catholic court enacts a merciless slaughter against the Protestants who had gathered in Paris for Henry's marriage. This carnage becomes known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Through these two events, the marriage and the massacre, we are introduced to the major and minor players in the quests for love and power that occupy the remainder of the narrative.

While this novel certainly had plenty of action and intrigue, I must say that I was not particularly moved by or sympathetic to any of the characters. Maybe it boded ill from the beginning that Henry of Navarre and Marguerite both planned separate romantic rendezvous on their wedding night. I understand that their marriage was simply a political arrangement, and this is France, after all, but still! Perhaps the passions and intrigues of the 16th century French court were just too frivolous or empty for me to develop a vested interest in the outcome. That's not to say that the story isn't interesting or that I considered not finishing it. In fact, the action is intense, and there is plenty of suspense in the plot to keep turning pages and reading long past a reasonable bed time. But in the end, it seemed simply that a few more had died and a few loves were lost, but crowns were still contested and sought after, and not much had really changed aside from the replacement of fallen characters with others who would carry on the drama in much the same fashion.

The Oxford World's Classics edition pictured above, did have an excellent introduction and extensive explanatory notes. From my perspective, the notes were both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, the notes could be a distraction from the storyline, being rather tedious to turn to the back of the book many times in the course of a chapter. I could have done without the explanations of streets and bridges and buildings within Paris - maybe that would be helpful to some people, but I don't really need to understand which way the carriage turned or which way someone fled. On the other hand, it was interesting to learn the actual history behind the story that Dumas crafted around historical characters. He shifted the roles of some key characters, rearranged the sequence of events at times, and was rather loose with quite a few historical details for the purpose of his narrative. But as helpful as the historical notes were, I think they also detracted from my enjoyment of the novel. It wasn't a story I could simply lose myself in, for not only did I find the characters unsympathetic, but the plot was forever being corrected, historically speaking, by the notes. I might have been better served by reading a summary of the actual history with points of comparison between that and the novel after I had completed the book.

Here are some of the more revealing quotes by a few key characters:

Henry of Navarre to Marguerite: "I now know that someone is concealed here - that you are an unfaithful wife, but a faithful ally; and, at this moment, I have more need of fidelity in politics than in love." (24)

Marguerite: "'Sir,' said Marguerite to Henry, 'your last words were an accusation against me, and you were both right and wrong. Right, for I am the means by which they attempted to destroy you. Wrong, for I did not know that you were doomed to destruction. I myself , sir, owe my life to chance - to my mother's not thinking of me, perhaps. But as soon as I learned fo the danger you were in I remembered my duty, and a wife's duty is to share the fortunes of her husband. If you are exiled, sire, I will be exiled too; if they imprison you, I will be your fellow-captive; if they kill you, I will die too.'" (104)

Catherine de Medici (queen mother): "Catherine, bursting with rage, returned to her quarters...'Satan!' she muttered, 'help a poor queen, for whom God will do nothing more!'" (361)

Overall, I would give La Reine Margot 3 1/2 stars. I haven't read any of Dumas' other novels for comparison, though The Black Tulip looks interesting given my husband's Dutch heritage. I would also like to read The Count of Monte Cristo sometime. I'll just have to decide between the abridged or full version, after reading this review...

A summary of my book club's discussion of La Reine Margot can be found here.

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