My review of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess may have been unfairly affected by the fact that I read Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty right afterwards, because Blood and Beauty is a much better book in the same category — historical fiction about real famous people. I’ve been a huge fan of Dunant’s historical novels for years but in the past she has generally written about fictional characters in real historical settings, sometimes bringing in historical figures as minor characters but never making kings and queens the stars of the show as writers like Gregory tend to do. The beautifully crafted Blood and Beauty is a departure from that pattern, featuring those Renaissance headline grabbers (and stars of a recent miniseries, although I haven’t seen it and it has no connection with Dunant’s book): the Borgias.
This isn’t an era I know a whole lot about so I can’t judge Dunant’s accuracy but she certainly makes turn-of-the-sixteenth-century Rome feel believable, and the Borgias, despite their larger-than-life exploits and reputation, emerge as real, flesh-and-blood characters. One thing I especially liked is how she tackles something that’s sometimes difficult for a modern writer and a modern reader to appreciate: how in this era of what we now view (and some then viewed) as rampant corruption within the church, the very same people responsible for the corruption could also be sincerely devout. Yes, there’s cynicism, starting from the papal politics on the very first page as Rodrigo Borgia manipulates himself onto the papal throne, but there’s also real faith and love for God and the church. You begin to see how a man like Rodrigo Borgia could see his political machinations, up to and including the murder of enemies, as part of his devotion to the glory of God and the Catholic church. The reader doesn’t necessarily find herself approving of everything the Borgias do, exactly — though Lucrezia is a very sympathetic character, almost an innocent in a very guilty world — but Dunant brings us inside their heads enough that we understand their motives.
As I neared the end of this book I began thinking it was impossible to wrap up everyone’s lives and storylines in the pages remaining — and sure enough, the novel ends mid-Borgia-career, with a sequel promised. I’ll be waiting. Though a history book can tell you what happened to all the Borgias, only a great writer can make you feel like you’ve experienced it along with them.