Thursday, November 29, 2012

100 Books #114 - Jean Plaidy's LIGHT ON LUCREZIA

I thoroughly enjoyed Plaidy's earlier look at the life of the infamous but possibly unfairly maligned Lucrezia Borgia, Madonna of the Seven Hills, in which Plaidy neatly focused, not on the most infamous rumors and legends about this woman and her family, but on how those nasty tales might have gotten started. This is a nice distinction, maybe -- you can't talk effectively about rumors without mentioning their content, at least in passing, after all -- but one that Plaidy is a master of making, and making into satisfying novels.

Which is why I love her, and, as I mentioned when writing about The Scarlet Contessa, a book set in pretty much the same time and place as Plaidy's Borgia books, wish she'd taken up Caterina Sforza as a subject at some point. Oh, what a glorious book that would have been!

La Sforza does make an appearance in  Light on Lucrezia. the sequel to Madonna of the Seven Hills, but only for a few pages: a swift depiction of her resistance to Cesare's military onslaught and her famously rapey personal encounter with the man after he won the battle. How Plaidy could convey this account and then pass over the notion of writing a book about Caterina will always be a mystery to me. If I'm wrong about this, and she did write about Caterina in more detail under one of her many, many pseudonyms, please, for all love, enlighten me.

But enough about the Lady of Forli; this book is about Lucrezia, picking up exactly after the previous book with the apprehensive coming of the second of her three husbands, Alfonso, illegitimate son of the king of Naples, to Rome. Plaidy protrays this marriage as utterly idyllic, marred only by what every relationship in Lucrezia's life seems to have been marred: the jealousy of the odious Cesare. Every page devoted to this marriage -- and there really aren't many of them -- foreshadows the poor Alfonso's inevitable fate, so when it comes, the reader yawns a bit. And yawns a bit further when Lucrezia predictably chooses to stick by her evil brother, whom she has been conditioned to worship and seek to please since birth.

The rest of the novel focuses on Lucrezia's third marriage, to another Alfonso, this one the heir to the Duke of Ferrara -- which is to say that things pick up from here. Ferrara is ruled by an ancient line of haughty, snotty aristocrats, the Estes (who trace their lineage to times before the Carolingians ruled a good chunk of Europe), who resent that their bloodline will now bear the taint of Borgia ancestry, too, if Lucrezia does her job and makes Este babies. Which is to say that Lucrezia is thrown into a den of vipers, with the chief she-snake being her sister-in-law, Isabella, Marquesa of Mantua, who has long regarded herself the prettiest, most stylish, most accomplished woman in Italy and so sees Lucrezia as a rival to be humiliated at every opportunity. Hilariously, the passive and pliant Lucrezia's non-reaction to Isabella's ploys (and those of Isabella's own sister-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga) is precisely the best way to keep her would-be rival at the height of annoyance.

As Lucrezia's domestic troubles take center stage, at last the figures of her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) and brother Cesare the Fratricide, fade into the background. This may be why a lot of readers have complained that this second Borgia novel is dull compared to the first; it lacks the dramatic focus the first book, devoted almost wholly to foreshadowing the murder of Giovanni Borgia by Cesare, had. But really? It's all in the title: Light on Lucrezia. Finally, Lucrezia Borgia is the heroine of her own life, or at least as much of one as a Renaissance Pope's only (acknowledged) daughter can be. Which is to say that the modern reader spends a lot of these books wanting to slap Lucrezia and tell her to take some control and set some boundaries, but yeah...

La Borgia's reputation seems to have been on the mend in my lifetime, and I wonder if Plaidy's books might not have helped get this started. For my part, I find her portrait of a passive people pleaser annoying but having the ring of truth to it. A pretty little girl with such monstrous relatives might well just teach herself not to see them as they were as long as they kept her in nice dresses and poets and behaved themselves when she was around, especially in a society that still exercised mighty energies to keep women in their places (the odd amazing virago like Caterina Sforza or Isabella d'Este notwithstanding; some people just don't follow the rules, no matter when they're born), and I find the idea that Lucrezia was such a one far more plausible than that she was a monstrous female Cesare, whoring and poisoning her way across Italy out of ego, malice and desire for power.

So yeah, Holliday Granger played her just right.

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