Reviewed by Annabel
There are two types of historical fiction. Those which are set during a particular period with imagined protagonists which may feature real people of the time in minor roles or cameos, and those which are fictional retellings of history where the real characters take centre stage. Sarah Dunant has written both.
Her first three Renaissance novels were the former: starting with The Birth of Venus, (2003), which was set in Florence during the time Savonarola was pre-eminent in the religious politics. These novels had fictional mould-breaking heroines and were very much about women’s roles in these fascinating times in 15th and 16th century Italy.
Dunant’s next two books are the latter and her subject is the infamous Borgia family. In Blood and Beauty, (2013), she covers a period of ten years from Rodrigo’s installation as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. During this decade, his son Cesare became a cardinal then left holy orders to become a condottiero (leader of a free military company) to further the family’s reach through conquest, and his daughter Lucrezia had seen off two husbands, had a son with her second, and allegedly had an affair in-between them. Her second husband was murdered, and it was said that Cesare was responsible. Negotiations have started with the Este family of Ferrara for a third marriage for Lucrezia.
In the Name of the Family takes up where Blood and Beauty ended. It begins in January 1502, but the prologue is set in Florence, where a certain young man is working his way up the slippery ladder of diplomacy. His wife describes him thus:
You wouldn’t call him tall; he was barely an inch bigger than her, and wiry in stature. His soot-black hair was cut unfashionably close to his head and his face, broad at the eyes, tapered bia a thin nose to a sharp clean-shaven chin. The word weasel had come to mind when they first met. But strangely it hadn’t put her off.
This man is Niccolò Machiavelli. He will go on to write his political treatise The Prince in 1513, but in 1502-3 he is on a diplomatic mission from the Florentine rulers to the papacy and he will witness the military methods of Cesare at work at first hand as the Borgias try to bring central Italy under their control. In Dunant’s hands, Machiavelli is a shrewd and clever observer who pops up regularly to explain some of the politicking going on between the various Dukedoms, and not forgetting the Spanish and French troops who lurk around Italy’s borders.
The real stars are of course the three Borgias. Alexander the ageing old bear of a pope and Cesare the pox-ridden military strategist are complete opposites, as we see in the opening chapter when they are at sea in separate ships caught in a storm. Alexander, a sardine-loving old seadog from his Spanish heritage sits it out, whereas the impetuous Cesare is shipwrecked on the rocks, believing wrongly that making land would save time.
Lucrezia meanwhile is on her way to Ferrara for her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este, whose father Ercole had played hardball with Alexander in negotiation of her dowry. We tend to think of Lucrezia as a femme fatale – here she is 21 and already on her third marriage – she was just twelve when first married, little more than a pawn to create allies. This final marriage is political too, but would last (with some affairs on the side) until her death after childbirth of her ninth child.
In 1502 though, Dunant pictures her as an astute young woman who can hold her own against her avaricious father-in-law. She is pretty, charming and loves dancing and wins the hearts of the people of Ferrara. It is not until the Venetian poet Pietro Bembo comes to Ferrara later in the year that there is any hint of impropriety.
There is something else stalking in the background of this novel though, and that’s illness, from the French pox that Cesare believes himself cured of, to the summer fever that plagues Ferrara:
…where the network of rivers and waterways seems to delight in trapping fogs in winter, and in the summer spreading contagion. In the diplomatic circles of Italy envoys are known to fear a posting to Ferrara when the fever is abroad.
Lucrezia suffers terribly during her first pregnancy there and is delivered of a stillborn baby. Doctoring is still an infant (and male) science in those days and they are too fond of bloodletting, leeches and potions containing mercury.
As ever, Dunant’s research is remarkably detailed and her writing is clear and elegant, bringing the sights, sounds and smells of the court in Ferrara to life, as she also does for Cesare’s increasingly barbaric and brutal violence towards anyone who crosses him – they all end up dead! Add in pox, fever and childbirth – this is not reading for the squeamish.
Dunant’s Afterword sets straight the few places she has employed some artistic licence to service the plot – well this is a novel, not a true history. The bibliography gives plenty of scope for further exploration. I was expecting a little more of Machiavelli in the main text, given that he gets a prominent mention on the front cover ahead of the Borgias themselves, but no matter, his prologue and epilogue bookend the narrative neatly. In the Name of the Family is a novel to really get stuck into – the 444 pages raced by as I immersed myself in ambition, political intrigue and the trials of Renaissance marriage of this fascinating family. Read either Blood and Beauty or In the Name of the Family and I guarantee you’ll want to read the other half of this two novel set.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
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Sarah Dunant, In the Name of the Family (Virago, 2017). 978-844087464, 454pp., hardback.
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