In terms of reading my Mum, I think, raised me to enjoy a lot of the things she liked. She and I used to read a lot of poetry together (mostly from the last quarter of her copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – Stevie Smith was our favourite) and I still have very fond memories of her Welsh(ish) accent when reading me Under Milk Wood. I also used to read all her Jean Plaidy historical novels when she’d finished with them. We were working our way from the Norman Trilogy, through the Plantagenet Saga and the odd bit of Tudors, Stuarts and Victoriana but I don’t think we read any of the Italian books. Maybe she didn’t want me (at 11 or 12) delving into the world of the Borgias. Although I do seem to recall being allowed to watch the odd episode of I, Claudius at this age so maybe this wasn’t a deliberate omission. The upshot is that my knowledge of the Borgia family is only what I have read in general histories of Europe in the Renaissance period (and also histories of disease, which is an odd interest of mine). Which meant I was coming to Sarah Dunant’s book about the last few years of the family’s power with few misconceptions beyond those popularly held ones of violence, nepotism, incest and general lewdness.
In the Name of the Family is a very well researched historical novel which doesn’t ignore these aspects of the Borgia family. So it doesn’t just trot out those ‘facts’ (most of which, it seems, would earn you a very loud klaxon on QI) but explores them by showing us the characters of the family themselves. In some cases the reputations seem well-earned: Cesare is a man steeped in violence, seems to have no principles beyond the advancement of his own view of a Borgia empire and who has no qualms about killing those he has no further use for. The Pope, Rodrigo Borgia, is a man given to indulging his fleshly urges and focussed on promoting his family and Lucrezia is a beautiful young woman willing to be used as a pawn, married off to the most valuable ally possible. However, Dunant digs a little deeper and instead of giving us just the lurid details (from histories written by the Borgia families many enemies, perhaps) shows a more nuanced view of the characters. Cesare is given to violent mood swings but we see how they may be made worse by the effects of syphilis, the new disease sweeping Europe. Roderigo is venal but has a sincere love for his children, his mistress, the Virgin Mary and sardines. If he were a lesser man rather than a Pope he’d be a wonderful man in many ways.
Lucrezia’s story is interesting since an effort is made to show what she achieved herself rather than just portraying her as an object to be traded. Much mention is made of her reputation, spread again by the family’s enemies, as a whore, as a poisoner and as a woman interested only in fashion, dancing and pleasure but we see her as much more than this. She is aware that she has made personal sacrifices for her father and brother’s ambitions – a husband murdered and a son taken away – but she is shown as a woman of intelligence and feeling who works hard to make the best of the situation she finds herself in. She has an astute sense of politics and a keen interest in the arts; she cares about the women who attend her, many of whom have moved with her from Rome to her new home in Ferrara; she is determined to help to rule her new home well. She is shown very sympathetically but, as a modern woman, I found her willingness to be used, by her father, brother and husband, a bit depressing.
Overall I enjoyed this book. I felt that I learned a lot about the period and the characters. Some of the more minor characters were particularly interesting – Niccolo Machiavelli and Lucrezia’s husband among the historical figures, a convent herbalist and a young black servant among the less famous – and the plot moved on at a pace. If you enjoy historical fiction (with added violence and unflinching descriptions of death and disease) then give this a go.