A Lover's Pinch by Jean Ravencourt
|A Lover's Pinch by Jean Ravencourt|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: This tale of manipulation and murder at the 16th century French royal court makes addictive historical fiction… and it all began with a painting.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 279||Date: March 2015|
Hettie (Henriette to be formal) has grown up in straitened times. Her mother was a former mistress of Charles IX but now Henri IV is on the throne. A different king means different favourites and Hettie’s family have to live on the memory and favours of others. However Hettie has attracted the attention of Henri which is enough to give her mother ideas. She’s not the only one though: King’s mistress Gabrielle d’Estrees also has plans for the teenage girl. Hettie is definitely embarking on an adventure but the twists it takes are unforeseen by anyone and dangerous to all.
Author Jean Ravencourt was born of French/English parentage which led to a romantic sounding nomadic childhood (thanks to his army officer father). After studying English and history at the imaginatively landscaped but not quite as romantic sounding Nottingham University he now works in HR for various European institutions reverting back to his love of history by writing historical fiction for light relief – and indeed for our benefit.
His starting point this, his latest novel, is a painting of Gabrielle and ‘one of her sisters’ in an interesting nipple-pinching pose which currently hangs in the Louvre. From that he dug back into history, extrapolating the facts to bring us the wonderfully Machiavellian tale of Hettie and Gabrielle together with a plausible reason for both the art work and the classification of Hettie as a sister. Although Jean fascinates us with the coded messages instilled in art at that time (reproducing some in his book as visual aids), the painting is actually an excuse for a highly addictive novel.
As you’ve probably realised by now, both ladies did exist. (Hettie is known by history as – deep breath – Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues.) They were also both experts in the amazingly devious plotting that courtiers and courtesans (as well as those aspiring to such positions) needed to survive – often literally.
By the way, if you’re wondering what’s in it for the lover of British hist-fict, there’s a link between the French royal family at the time and the English throne. Henri married into the same de Valois family that had previously produced Catherine de Valois. She, in turn, with Owen Tudor’s vital assistance, started an English royal dynasty.
Jean’s story starts as a web of plans to advance Hettie and therefore her family. It also demonstrates some perfectly pitched writing making what could be complicated machinations accessible. We definitely understand the politics and turn the pages avidly to see the unguessable results as the webs waft in various directions.
Indeed the joy of not knowing much about French history (in my case) means that the past doesn’t become its own spoiler. Having said that, there’s so much here I’m sure that even students of the period would appreciate the sense of place and era the author instils in the adventure.
The great surprise (for me anyway) was just how cynical these royal hangers-on seem to be about love. In courtly affairs affection is a tool rather than an emotion and, as such, sharp edged and highly effective in the hands of those who have the knack. It’s not all about politicking though – Jean’s cleverness continues in that about two-thirds in the novel changes from a masterclass in cunning to a just as effective murder mystery. (I won’t tell you whose murder so the surprise adds to the delicious layers.)
There are also some lovely lines demonstrating the sharp incisive wit meant to wound rather than amuse. For instance ‘’She has a sharp mind… but she keeps it locked away.’’ Ouch!
This is a hugely satisfying read but don’t go into it expecting cut and dried goodies and baddies. Our affections and allegiances change with the developments and as we see different sides of the protagonists. We may start assigning labels and bending our emotions to fit our assumptions but then we realise it’s not clear cut. These are people of their time, each with a tendency towards both ends of the behavioural spectrum when life or promotion is at stake. Not so different from the 21st century then? Yes, as that French guy Karr said (all together), the more things change, the more they are the same.
(Thank you so much to the author for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you’re interested in the de Valois family and how important they became on the English side of the channel, we recommend [[The Forbidden Queen by Anne O'Brien]. If you’d like to learn more about French history we also recommend the meatier but just as accessible The Brethren by Robert Merle.
You can read more about Jean Ravencourt here.
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