Monday, June 11, 2012

A Gentleman of France by Stanley J Weyman

This is the second Stanley Weyman book I've read, and it was a most pleasant surprise. The first, Count Hannibal, had been a sensational and self-indulgent romantic adventure story without a great deal of depth. I had low expectations of this one too, and might never have read it if it hadn't already been sitting there on my shelf.

As I said, this one was a surprise.

Gaston, Sieur de Marsac, is a Huguenot gentleman who has impoverished himself in the wars of the sixteenth century in France between the Huguenots and the Catholics. By 1588 when this story begins, the battles of Jarnac and Montoncourt, together with the awful massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (a slice of history you can read about in GA Henty's book Saint Bartholomew's Eve) are past. Now, under the rival leadership of King Henry of Navarre and the Vicomte de Turenne, the Huguenot faction has gained some stability and even some political power. With King Henry of France desperate for support against the Catholic League that holds Paris, his power toppling, his mother Catherine de Medici dying, the knives of his assassins red with the blood of that powerful Catholic nobleman the Duke of Guise--the question is not whether he will make peace with the Huguenots, but with which of their factions he will ally himself: that led by Henry of Navarre, his next heir to the throne of France, or that led by the powerful and ambitious Vicomte de Turenne.

The Sieur de Marsac asks the King of Navarre for some small command in his army--but the King is already stretched beyond his means, and cannot grant his request. Instead he entrusts him with a dangerous mission. In the house of the Vicomte de Turenne is a lady held captive. She is a witness to the Vicomte's treachery against Navarre and against France; and it is de Marsac's mission to kidnap her from the Vicomte's house, convey her across hostile territory to the King of France's court at Blois, and secure the alliance of France and Navarre by telling her story to the King of France.

Danger, adventure, and courtly intrigue, naturally, ensue. In the roiling political dangers of 1580s France, disavowed by his master the King of Navarre, the Sieur de Marsac might be fortunate to escape with his life--much less fortune, favour, and the hand of an heiress.

There is much to enjoy in A Gentleman of France. The other book I'd read by Weyman, as well as the cover of this one, made me think it would be a fluffy melodrama. Instead it's a well-conceived adventure story fully engaged with the politics and historic personalities of the time. I enjoyed getting to know some of the background of the Huguenot Wars in Saint Bartholomew's Eve last year and this was almost as good a primer on the events that led to Henry of Navarre becoming King of France.

Little as my knowledge is of the actual historical events, I thought they were pictured with reasonable accuracy. Henry of Navarre, particularly, is portrayed as I have known him elsewhere: as a great captain and leader who was a brave protector for the Huguenots, even though he was personally ambitious and worldly.
The treatment of the Huguenots themselves is reasonable. In an age where religion was undeniably linked to politics, it can't be unusual to find men on both sides who have followed political ambition rather than faith. So in this book, which follows one Huguenot faction's attempt to get ahead of another Huguenot faction, the villain of the piece as well as the hero is a Huguenot. As usual in the so-called Wars of Religion, there are Catholics and Protestants all over the map fraternising, fighting on one side or the other, and so on. Still, despite the confused state of French politics at the time, the Huguenots remain the good guys, and recognisably themselves, giving praise and glory to God for their deliverances, and never losing sight of the threat that the Catholic League poses to their peace and safety. I much preferred this treatment of the Huguenots to that in Count Hannibal.

Otherwise the story is good. The plot keeps moving briskly through history, politics, and intrigue. The romance was a mite tiresome (I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to give the heroine the spanking she deserved) but for most of the time was kept sidelined by the main stuff of the story, which was good solid adventuring. 

Although I liked this book, I didn't love it. The plot was good, but not inspired, and it never really swept me up. I'll be keeping this one--more for the history than the plot--and trying some other Stanley Weyman books when the chance comes.

Gutenberg etext


Kim Marsh said...

Thank you for this review. I am afraid it hasn't inspired me to read weyman but to find out a little ore about the period. I am surprised that Henri "Paris is worth a mass" of Navarre should merit your approval! However any king whose ambition for his country was that every family should have a chicken in the pot on sundays has my support.
Regards Kim

Suzannah said...

Well, I don't approve of him in the way I approve of, for example, Alfred the Great. But I respect him. Although worldly, he was a brave man, an excellent leader, and the benefactor of the Huguenots.


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