An aristocratic author who claims descent from both women chronicles the decades-long battle for the attention and love of the France’s Henri II between his queen, Catherine de’ Medici, and his lover, Diane de Poitiers.
Princess Michael of Kent seems most charmed with the beautiful, ageless Diane (1499–1566) and almost grudgingly grants pages to the point of view of Catherine (1519–89), whom she describes as short, dark, bitter, and overmatched. Catherine once ordered holes drilled into her floor so she could observe in the room below the lovemaking of Henri and Diane. As the jealous queen watched, writes the author, “a knife must have pierced fat little Catherine’s heart.” Her children with Henri are not described more flatteringly: one had a “bulbous nose,” another a “ratlike little face,” yet another was “misshapen.” This superficial summary of the 16th century tells much about clothing and gardens, jewelry and architecture, ceremonies and pageants, faces and fashions. Princess Michael praises fine faces and firm bodies, suggesting that women today might benefit from sleek Diane’s beauty regimen. (Those who have her income could especially benefit, one would think.) The author begins with the marriage of 14-year-old Catherine to 14-year-old Henri, who at the time was not directly in line for the throne. (Convenient deaths subsequently made him king.) It ends with the monarch’s death, Catherine’s revenge (she promptly banished Diane from court), and Diane’s subsequent death at age 66. Among the loving, uncritical descriptions of royal excess in Renaissance France are some stories about the ongoing wars with Charles V, the French obsession with Italy and alliances with the Turks, the rivalry between Henri’s father François I and England’s Henry VIII, the burning of heretics, and Henri’s death after receiving a grotesque head wound in a tournament.
For those who prefer to wade in history’s shallows rather than swim in its depths. (Illustrations throughout)