Friday, October 12, 2012

100 Books #96 - Jean Plaidy's MADONNA OF THE SEVEN HILLS

This is the first Jean Plaidy book I've ever read that did not concern itself with a Queen of England. I was expecting the reading of it to be a stranger experience.

But Jean Plaidy is always Jean Plaidy, writing as if she's telling a fairy tale but not sparing us any of the unsavory or unpleasant details. So of course she had to take on the infamous Lucrezia Borgia.

I've noticed a tendency, in Plaidy, to build the tale around the most popular anecdote about her subject known at the time, whether it's truth or folklore. Thus, for instance, The Follies of the King is one long argument/justification for the infamous (and possibly fanciful) murder, at the behest of his long-suffering wife, of Edward III by means of a red hot poker. And thus this first of two books Plaidy wrote about Lucrezia and the rest of the Borgia family is just a giant bit of foreshadowing for the legendary fratricide of Lucrezia's brother Juan/Giovanni by her other brother Cesare.

Thus even as it tells the story of Lucrezia's father's elevation from Cardinal Roderigo Borgia to Pope Alexander III despite being the father of three and possibly four illegitimate children by a courtesan, which is a tale quite worthy of a novel in its own right, Madonna of the Seven Hills focuses on perhaps the most famous case of sibling rivalry gone wild since Cain and Abel, except this time, instead of God's favor, the brothers are dueling for that of their own sister and father.*

Some later writers (Madonna of the Seven Hills was first published in 1958) might have gone all out for the scandalous, salacious incest plot, but Plaidy, as always, was more interested in who Lucrezia really was and why she would accept and even embrace a situation that most modern women would find intolerable. From the first pages, we see Lucrezia as a girl born to a bizarre station in life (tartly observing at one point to her friend Giulia Farnese [who has also by that point taken over Lucrezia's mother's job as the pope's mistress] that accepting bribes and telling her father all about them is her job) but who never knew anything else; the only daughter of a family of vain, proud, selfish and violently passionate pseudo-aristocrats who can't afford not to stick together however much they have gotten sick of each other.

So of course Plaidy's Lucrezia** grows up to be a pathological people pleaser. She is rich and powerful and beautiful and educated, but despite these advantages her self-worth is bound up only in how her father and brothers react to her; if they are adoring her, they are not fighting each other, or killing people, or starting wars or seduce-raping innocent girls (or boys) -- so it's very important that they keep on adoring her, even if it means keeping them trapped as rivals for her attention and affection. Whether or not she had a sexual relationship with any of them is quite beside the point, for Plaidy; if she did, it was just another symptom. Plaidy is more interested in how the rumors got started than if they were true.

As I said, though, all of this is just foreshadowing for the culmination of the big and legendary hatred between Cesare and Giovanni***, the two brothers who have only ever been friends when they were teaming up against an outsider whom they perceived as a threat to the family (usually a husband or lover or would-be lover of Lucrezia's). It's a tricky thing Plaidy has done here, making us sympathize for their prize even as our author so obviously taps her foot impatiently waiting for the Big Showdown. Lucrezia gets humanized only to be turned into a thing, a prize, anyway.

Which is to say that in Madonna of the Seven Hills, Plaidy may have achieved her greatest degree of verisimilitude, of art imitating life almost painfully perfectly, of all.

But that's not quite what we turn to historical fiction/romance for, is it?

*Alexander VI was an infamously indulgent and doting father, but even so, imposed his will on his children somewhat mercilessly. Giovanni, his favorite, he chose to be the soldier and the secular nobleman, blind to the fact that Giovanni was about as much a soldier as, as, well, as Cesare was a clergyman. And, famously, Cesare was the one who got trained up in the priesthood and made a Cardinal by age 18. Of course, had this not happened, Niccolo Macchiavelli wouldn't have had his model for The Prince, because Cesare wouldn't have had to become the consummate schemer he was, etc.

**And possibly the historical Lucrezia, too.

***Peculiarly, the actual murder is dealt with offstage, which feels like a bit of a cheat after all of the build-up, but again, is the sort of anti-climactic "truth" writers like Plaidy most like to highlight, even at the expense of causing the last third or so of the novel to fall flat.

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