Fellow historical fiction fiends: you will be painfully aware that there’s some shocking stuff out there. Bad writing that screws with the facts and gives readers some very worrying ideas about historical figures. So thank goodness for Sarah Dunant.
Blood and Beauty is Dunant’s tenth novel, and her fourth to be set in Renaissance Italy. In her first three she steered clear of ‘famous’ figures and gave us stories of strong, ordinary women, so an epic novel about the notorious Borgia family is something of a departure. Given her exhaustive research for her other novels, though (she spends a year in the British Library researching each book; for her third she lived in a Milanese convent for a week), she is pretty well-qualified for the undertaking.
Blood and Beauty spans the period from 1492 to 1502, focusing on Rodrigo Borgia, who is elected as Pope Alexander VI as the novel opens, and his children Cesare and Lucrezia.
The plot follows the facts: over the next decade four of the Pope’s children get married, most of them have children of their own, Cesare (who during the 1490s became the only man to become a Cardinal and then become a civilian again) leads an army of Frenchmen to attack Naples, and there’s a good sprinkling of constant power-play, a few massacres, syphilis and some casual sex (His Holiness was very fond of women). Reading that, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a high-octane thriller, and in some chapters it almost is, but it’s also a masterly ensemble piece.
...there’s a good sprinkling of constant power-play, a few massacres, syphilis and some casual sex Dunant’s skill in inhabiting her characters raises her above the vast majority of historical novelists writing today. The Borgias may have become synonymous with poisonings, incest and murder, but their histories were written by their enemies and victors, and Dunant has not dealt in caricature.
Her prose has always been richly visual, and bloody, brutal late 15th century Italy is painted in description that pulls up just the right side of florid. The set pieces are luscious and suitably dramatic, but it is when working through the psychology of her protagonists that Dunant’s writing is at its best.
The historical note and bibliography at the end of the book state that she has incorporated contemporary accounts and letters wherever possible, to make her fiction as accurate as it can be. Because she has read an awful lot about the Borgias, and has chosen the characters she believes are most likely from the varying accounts, everyone rings true: there are no weird character 180s and their progression always makes sense.
Lucrezia comes off as by far the most likeable – an intelligent, compassionate young woman whose increasing steeliness is born of frustration with being her family’s pawn. Cesare is a gorgeous, arrogant arsehole; the Pope is an indulgent father whose desire for power drives him to commit some distinctly un-Godly deeds.
There are some wonderful incidental characters; the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies Burchard adds an element of wry, malevolent humour, and it’s virtually impossible not to root for Cesare’s servant Pedro Calderón, or feel compassion for the warrior Caterina Sforza, or… well, let’s just say there are a lot of characters in the book’s 500+ pages. There are a lot of changing political alliances as well, and unless you’ve got a prodigious memory you’ll be grateful for the family tree at the beginning.
Dunant writes in the present tense, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. This kind of structure is potentially clunky but, aside from a bit of clumsy exposition in one early section of dialogue, Dunant pulls it off with enviable aplomb. In a novel that relies on the thought processes of its characters to explain the manoeuvrings and machinations of this hugely complex period, omniscience is pretty crucial. The present tense makes the sweeping story feel current and real, and it helps the action gallop along as fast as Cesare’s horses.
Roll on the intended sequel.
Blood and Beauty was published in hardback by Virago on 2nd May, and is available from Amazon, Foyles, and most indie book shops, priced at £16.99. An e-book version is also available, priced at £8.49.
Recommended for: Fans of Hilary Mantel’s prose and Alison Weir’s characterisations, and anyone with an interest in Renaissance history.