Book Note: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone


In a nutshell: great story, wrong title.

In The Rival Queens, Nancy Goldstone covers this period of kings, queens, religions, and wars in France chronologically with a revolving door of minor characters including lovers, mignons, military generals, the Flying Squadron, and swash-bucklers. The writing is solid, and all the components of royal history are present in large quantity: scandals, intrigue, assassinations, a massacre, weddings, funerals, popes, liars, cheaters, swindlers, religious conflict, sexual promiscuity, bribes, duels, escapes, prisoners, blackmail….you get the point. It’s all there. You can’t turn a page without something surreptitious happening. It’s good history, and I enjoyed Goldstone’s retelling.

Unfortunately, her intended main characters in this drama fall victim to the dynamics of the context.

True, Catherine de’Medici and Marguerite (Margot) de Valois did not like each other. At all. Even a little bit. Except when it was politically expedient. 

But that they were rivals seems a stretch. They were both staunchly Catholic. At times they were on the same side. Other times, enemies. Supporting Henri III? Or Henry de Navarre? Or Both? More correctly, they seemed to be primarily motivated by self-preservation and were not deterred by familial bonds when they felt the other was threatening their current leader-of-choice.

It’s an incredible story, and it really does have every trapping of compelling drama that a novel needs. I was disappointed that although the women were part of the action, their dynamic did not meet my expectations for “rival.” Rival indicates a level of personal desire to overcome the other—motivation is found in the pursuit of “beating” the other. There is a stronger case for Henri III and Henry de Navarre to be rivals; or even better, the de Guise family and the Catherine Henri III combo. In that case, by association of connection then we could argue for rivals between the two women, but even that slips through the story in a few places when allegiances shift in response to the realities. 

Both women had moments of political success and strategic posturing, but I was never convinced that either was motivated by selfish ambition towards power. When power did come into play, they were most often fighting on behalf of someone else: playing the queen to a king. They were not impotent or without influence, but they were not themselves working towards a self-aggrandizing scheme. That they chose to be involved at all is perhaps their most exceptional feature—neither would sit placidly as a victim.

Catherine, for all the manipulation of her first son, Charles IX, was contained by Henri III. She worked as a mediator and occasionally gave an opinion against an action suggested by Henri III, but it was clear from Goldstone’s writing and the events themselves that Catherine was not in charge. She took what she had as long as one of her sons was on the throne. She would do what it took to keep them there.

For her part, Catholic Queen Margot, in the few happy years of her marriage to the Protestant Henry de Navarre, reflected warmly on their relationship. As it devolved into isolation and manipulation she made a few strategic (and brave) decisions that appear to be motivated largely by survival. Likewise, Margot’s earlier brief foray into espionage was motivated by support for her brother, Francois, and his designs on international support for the religious conflict. It was brave, no doubt, and she was no innocent, to be sure, but even as her claims to power flickered it did not appear that she was striving on her own account to settle a score with her mother or grow her own personal power.  

When Margot did finally return to Paris, and her annulment to the then-King Henri IV was finalized, she lived lavishly, generously, and amicably with her ex-husband and his new bride, the current Queen of France. She was a favored aunt in the royal court. And in this she seemed content.

Both women had moments of effective decision-making, subterfuge, and success. But as the tale unfolds it continues to seem that their (re)actions were based on situations, politics, and survival – not grabs for the throne and concerns over leadership rights. Catherine tended to be reactive and Margot favored pro-action. Sometimes their strategies were successful, sometimes they backfired. Several times Lady Luck appeared to have more influence than anyone else.

Good story. But it doesn’t match the title. Maybe All’s Fair in Love and War? Because really, everything was in this one. Good read, just be prepared to enjoy the history and all the characters involved because the two Queens are a part of the story—not the whole story.

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