He has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women; how stubborn their gentleness can be.
Incredible though it may seem, there are people—I have personally met a few—who did not like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Up until now, I have been at a loss for what to do with these people, apart from simply abandon them altogether (at least where Wolf Hall is concerned.) Now, however, I know what I shall do: point them in the direction of Sarah Dunant. Her new novel, In the Name of the Family, is the first book of hers I have read, but it is utterly irresistible.
Like Mantel, she writes about the personal dynamics that are forever intertwined with political manoeuvering, and has chosen an iconic, fertile area of history to explore in fiction. If her exploration of psychology and motive digs a little less deep than Mantel’s, that is even more reason to recommend her to doubters. In Sarah Dunant, you get a writer who is observant, reflective, and conjures up the past with incredible skill, while also pushing her plot relentlessly forward. She is, basically, an accessible Mantel, and even though the word “accessible” generally makes me shudder, here I think it’s a good thing; she writes historical fiction for the bright general reader who prefers action to philosophising.
In the Name of the Family proves that politicking isn’t limited to the Tudor court. It is set in the opening years of the sixteenth century, in an Italy swiftly coming under the control of the Borgias. Cesare Borgia is the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI, né Rodrigo Borgia, and he is general of a mercenary army that is busy capturing key cities across the centre of the country. Alexander, meanwhile, is bleeding the Church dry to keep his son in pikemen and cannon. At the book’s beginning, Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, is about to be married to the Duke-Elect of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este; the alliance will strengthen Borgia family power and the Estes are happy to have a family connection to the papacy. And then there is Niccolo Machiavelli, our Thomas Cromwell figure, whose experiences as envoy from Florence to Cesare will form the backbone of his still-to-be-written masterwork, The Prince.
Dunant does a brilliant rehabilitation job on these characters, some of whom we may have preconceived ideas about. Lucrezia, for instance, has come down in history as a kind of psychotic vamp, promiscuous and murderous in equal measure. In Dunant’s telling, she’s more sinned against than sinning: on her third marriage at twenty-three, not through any fault of hers but through the natural death of one husband and the murder of the second by Cesare. The incest rumours, by the way, are dealt with: there is something weird about Cesare’s fixation with his sister, and Dunant gives us the occasional dark flashback to childhood uneasiness. Lucrezia never appears complicit in Cesare’s control of her, and she isn’t a passive victim, either; she’s well-read, and wants to make Ferrara a centre of the arts. Where her interests might appear frivolous or feminine, such as her insistence upon her full dowry allowance so that she can have sufficiently fine clothes, Dunant makes clear to the reader how much hangs on appearances. Lucrezia is a piece in a game, but a piece who knows her value. She must win over the d’Estes; she must win over the city of Ferrara. The way to do it is through beauty, youth, and charm. It is no coincidence that she is an excellent dancer.
Cesare is a little more opaque—the book’s men in general, in fact, are drawn with less shade and subtlety, and some of the scenes amongst the conspirators in Cesare’s own army are a little Game-of-Thrones-y in their terse melodrama. (I mean, it’s quite Game-of-Thrones anyway; the Wars of the Roses aren’t the only model George R.R. Martin is using. At one point, Machiavelli’s inner monologue describes the torments inflicted on a city by a particularly bad ruler, one who, as he sees it, isn’t actually cementing his power through his cruelty, only increasing the hatred of his citizens. It reminded me of those Bolton fellas.) But his sections serve as a counterpoint to Lucrezia’s gardens and silks, and they also serve as a reminder: this is why she is marrying, this is what it’s all for, the steady march of Cesare’s men over the map of Italy.
Pope Alexander is particularly well-drawn. He was, historically, a man of many contradictions: he liked to breakfast on plain herring, despite throwing money around like sand in order to buy offices or support Ceare’s troops; flashbacks suggest he was a genuinely devout child, spending Christmas night under the altar at his local church in Spain in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, yet he is never without a mistress or three, and even at seventy-two he is fathering children. Dunant nails these conflicting characteristics, and makes us believe that they could exist in one man. Her Pope is friendly and big-hearted, except for when contradicted—usually by Cesare—at which point he shouts. He is not unlike Mantel’s Henry VIII: a man who can afford to be generous because he has never known want, because it has never even occurred to him that there might not be enough for all. He is devoted to his family. The book’s titular phrase never appears within its pages, but Alexander’s underlying interest is clear. When he thinks Lucrezia is unhappy in Ferrara, he writes the sixteenth-century equivalent of a passive-aggressive email to her new father-in-law, demanding improvements; when Cesare tells him he is lacking, Alexander provides. All is for the family. Advancing it is the most important thing.
Machiavelli, meanwhile, functions as an analyst. He is there to work things out as or before we do, to explain the import of Cesare’s decisions if we haven’t got them alreaddy, and to be a more or less normal, everyday person (i.e. a non-noble) whose life is directly affected by the whims of these rulers. Dunant makes him no better or worse than he ought to be; he is probably a bit better than Thomas Cromwell—there’s no suggestion he’s ever killed anyone—but he likes drink and he likes women, despite having a fiery wife of his own. His relationship with her is actually one of the greatest joys of the book; it develops from newlywed uncertainty to affectionate teasing to real, quiet feeling in such an uncontrived way, humming along gently under the narrative’s larger events. Dunant also has Marietta Machiavelli write the one line which now survives from her, a description of their newborn son in a letter, and it is glorious. To learn that it’s a real sentence, really written by the real woman over five hundred years ago, makes the whole thing even better.
In the Name of the Family is a fairly long book, and perhaps it could have been a smidge shorter, but at no point does it feel as though it’s dragging. On the contrary, Sarah Dunant makes the danger and the beauty of sixteenth-century Italian politics come to life so vividly and with so little wasted effort that I feel cheated at having missed her work for so long.
Many thanks to the publicity folks at Virago for the review copy. In the Name of the Family was published in the UK on 2 March.