Before the recent wealth of historical fiction re-imagining women's lives from a feminist or post-feminist perspective, a major complaint about male-generated stories was that major female characters were portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes: child, mother, victim, harlot, witch, queen or saint. One needs only to consider the various depictions of Anne Boleyn through the centuries.
In her second novel, Muse, Vancouver-based author Mary Novik plays within this convention, consigning all of these labels to her narrator, Solange LeBlanc, as we follow her through her life. Far from confining her heroine within these generalities, however, by giving Solange agency to her own sexuality and power, Novik presents the fascinating possibilities for a woman's role in history.
From the novel's first line, it is clear we are deep within the embrace of a vibrant feminine consciousness.
"I first heard my mother's heartbeat from inside her dark, surrounding womb. It mingled with my own heart's rhythm, then changed to a harsher, more strident beat. It was then that I had my first and most famous vision of man kneeling in a purple cassock and biretta."
Blessed with the gift of second sight, Solange is born to a harlot in Avignon, France, during the papal residence in the city (seven successive popes resided there instead of Rome from 1309 to 1378). After her mother dies, she is raised in Clairefontaine by Benedictine nuns, who believe Solange's clairvoyance and prophecies will bring fame and glory to their abbey.
After a traumatic attack, Solange flees back to Avignon, where she hopes to make a living from her training as a scribe. It is here she meets Petrarch, the 14th-century poet considered the father of humanism and the inventor of the sonnet.
Many recent novels expound on the theory that behind every great man is a great woman. Nancy Horan makes the case for Frank Lloyd Wright's lover Mamah Borthwick in Loving Frank and Paula McLain celebrated Ernest Hemingway's first spouse, Hadley Richardson, in The Paris Wife. Novik herself has said she is working on a series that explores the minor characters in the lives of great literary figures and her debut novel, Conceit, focused on the daughter of poet John Donne.
Solange, a literary creation inspired both by Pope Clement VI's papal consort the Countess of Turenne and by the unknown mother of Petrarch's children, is posited as the poet's muse and possible co-creator of some of his more erotically charged works.
"This was the part of writing we enjoyed most – tossing verses back and forth, cozening the meanings from each word until the nuance was exactly right. We were developing a mutual language, caresses of vowel and consonant, a tongue that we were in no hurry to master."
The woman acknowledged as Petrarch's real-life muse, the married Laura de Noves, does appear in the story and Solange finds herself drawn into the middle of a love triangle, handmaiden to the celibate love between the poet and his "bella donna far above him in station."
The use of fictional characters interacting with true historical figures is a liberating creative device and as long as the story is executed within the framework of reality, there is generally no expectation from the reader of exact historical veracity. The necessity of this historical framework to ground the story is where Novik sometimes becomes overly ambitious. Her tremendous research is evident on the page and while it often serves to present a vivid portrait of the times, it can also bog down the narrative. This is most obvious in the novel's early passages as Solange trains in the abbey's scriptorium.
Of course, the issue of historical veracity is in itself a conundrum – one that ultimately lies at the heart of this story. History by its very nature is fictional, subject to the bias and motives of the teller. Petrarch himself was aware of this and wrote his own letters to posterity for those who desired to know what "manner of man" he was.
In the close first-person narrative of Solange's account of her life, it is hard not to question her truthfulness and motives. After all, it was Petrarch, the man whom her life orbited around, who said, "If true facts are lacking, add imaginary ones. Invention in the service of truth is not lying." (A permission that Novik notes in her acknowledgments.)
Regardless, Solange is a compelling voice and the reader is as helpless to her seductive charms as the powerful men in her life are. With Muse, Novik has crafted a heroine who pushes against the constraints of her time and station, placing her in a richly imagined world that thrums with life.
Athena McKenzie is the books editor at Zoomer Magazine and an associate editor at Victoria-based Page One Publishing.