In a lot of good recent historical fiction, the male characters come across as far less compelling than their female counterparts, even when they are seemingly more important to the plot. It’s as if the authors, men and women, have subconsciously decided that we already know enough about the uncomplicated desires and motivations of men – soldiers, politicians, priests, kings – that they can thus be sketched in using stereotypes and shortcuts. Women, no longer limited to their previous function as dutiful wombs or poignant emotional counterpoints to gruff male heroics, have a chance to expand into full personhood.
Perhaps Sarah Dunant pondered this curious phenomenon while writing her latest novel, Blood and Beauty. Unlike her three fascinating books about women during the Renaissance, her newest novel broadens her focus to include powerful men. Blood and Beauty opens with the audacious scheming and bribery that see Rodrigo Borgia elected as Pope Alexander VI before leading us through invasions, sieges, murder and strategic marriages. Although illegitimate children and other evidence of mortal sin pose no obstacle to those wanting to become pope, Rodrigo still has a disadvantage: as a Spanish upstart, he is particularly vulnerable to threat, making strong alliances imperative.
From an early age, then, Alexander’s children understand their importance in attaining and maintaining the Borgias’ position as Italy’s dominant family. The eldest, Juan, is a carefree playboy whose swaggering bravado soon lands him in trouble; Cesare – the model for Machiavelli in The Prince – rebels against his position in the church but never lets it prevent him from indulging his taste for violence and debauchery; the youngest, Jofré, is married as a child to a woman who sleeps with both of his brothers.
Lucrezia, not even 20 and on her third husband by the end of the book, is portrayed initially as slightly naive compared with her close female companions, whose innocence, both sexual and political, has not been so carefully preserved. Jofré’s wife, Sancia of Aragon, and Giulia Farnese, the pope’s mistress, both recognize that their value and position – even their lives – depend entirely on the whims of men in power.
In Sacred Hearts, Dunant delicately probed the question of which woman had more freedom: the teenager coerced into joining a convent but who experienced, once there, a surprising degree of intellectual liberty, or the woman married off for political gain, expected to do nothing but bear many children and obey the men around her. In Blood and Beauty the exploration of female autonomy continues. Although Lucrezia, the most intriguing character, can rebel against the family for a time, she cannot defy her father forever – much less her brother, who kills her beloved second husband and then tells her she must marry again, warning that if the “next husband is not powerful enough to take you away, you will always be a Borgia first and someone’s wife second.”
This novel is not always as successful as Dunant’s other works at maintaining the line between intellectual writing and high-class romp. The early part of the novel stalls, despite the rapid pace of events and the tension of political intrigue, with too much descriptive telling of conquest (be it of cities, rivals or women) combined with the fixed nature of the male characters and the lack of nuance of their voices. Moreover, the reader feels a little cheated by the flattening out of the conflict between overt religious credence and private opinion. The nuns of the earlier books might rebel against God, but Dunant’s Alexander professes, even when alone, a sincere faith in God’s power and Mary’s protection. Are we to believe that Alexander’s professional piety was not entirely for show? If not, how did he rationalize the ceaseless conflict between his behaviour and his beliefs?
The novel really starts to hum with life as Lucrezia grows older and becomes more implicated in the story, with the personal being once again integrated into the political to great effect.
If Blood and Beauty is part of a general historical move towards rehabilitation of the Borgias (a great deal of their bad reputation is based on the Renaissance equivalent of attack ads), Dunant is much less interested in saving Cesare’s reputation than she is in mending Lucrezia’s.
For the most part, this notorious family simply reflected, albeit enthusiastically, the brutal and savage world they lived in. Despite some flaws, this novel (and its promised sequel) will ultimately please Dunant’s existing fans, and should win her some new ones among readers who still prefer their historical fiction to deal with famous men.