LATER YEARS OF CATHERINE DE' MEDICI.* Tars is certainly the
most striking book Miss Sidle' has yet written, and for more reasons than one will probably be the most successfuL Her art is becoming matured. In the earlier books her material was broken up into numerous literary fragments, each more or less complete in itself, a plan which had its attractions, but interfered with the clear
historical continuity of the narrative. This was much less felt in Catherine de' Medici and the French Reformation.
Still, that book, as its readers will remember, was a collection of separate studies through which the character and history of the central figure developed themselves slowly, if brilliantly, as Henry IL's mysterious Italian Queen emerged with her own wonderful opportunism from a background of powerless- ness and neglect.
Although the arrangement of the present book is technically the same, we have found it far more agreeable and interesting to read from the fact that the chapters lead on to each other with that very historical continuity which before was lacking. Instead of giving a series of more or less detached studies of these extraordinary times, this book carries the reader, with striking success, through the events of French history during Catherine's later years. One character after another, of course, comes conspicuously to the front—and a marvellous gallery it is—but the Queen is always there, as she was in reality. Her influence is always felt, and the painful interest of her story goes on deepening to the end,—the story of a woman qui est sans dine, in a society for whose rottenness she was in such great measure responsible.
Another advantage possessed by this volume lies in the attractive, absorbing nature of its subject-matter. Rightly or not, and whether the fact is a credit or otherwise to the public intelligence, people care far more to read about characters and events with which they are already familiar, when presented from a fresh point of view, than to make the intellectual effort of studying unfamiliar history. Publishers will bear us out in saying that it is not the general reader who cares for the inner politics of the struggles carried on in the sixteenth century in the name of religion,—that name so taken in vain, misused, misunderstood, even by writers who should know its meaning better. But everybody cares for the tales, so often told, of St. Bartholomew's Eve and of the murder of Henry of Guise in the castle of Blois. No apology is needed, we assure Miss Sichel, for telling those stories over again. No one will ever be tired of reading them, and they alone would be enough to make her new book popular, even if it could not be added, as it can, that they have never been better told, never with more glowing realisation of time and place and personality, or with a more complete grasp of the details which an ordinary historian finds it outside his province to give. The story of the St. Bartholomew has never thrilled us more strongly ; it reads like a chapter from a brilliant historical novel. One thinks of Dumas, but indeed these real things, pris sur le vif, have a power to touch the heart denied even to the great romancer.
The history of these complicated twenty-seven years, the last years of the race which ruled in France for more than two centuries, is a very difficult one to write, far more so, indeed, than it appears on the surface; and we are not sure that the real inward philosophy of it has yet been touched, even by Miss Sichel. In fact, it is both puzzling and simple, and sometimes the simplest explanation may be found the truest in the end.
"Abnormal luxury, abnormal vice, and over all the lurid
light of storm threatening judgment to come Where there is no morality, not even immorality, hitt only unmorality, there is no public opinion, and the death of public opinion- is The most awful tragedy that can befall a nation." These are two of the earliest sentences in Miss Sichel's book, and each in its own way is suggestive. One may just remark that the "lurid light of storm" came to nothing ; no judgment, as far as we can see, descended on France, unless we are to look forward two hundred years,—only Henry IV. and his immoralities and scepticism ; the rule of a good-natured man instead of a • The Later Years of Catherine di Medici. By Edith Sichel. London : A. Constable aud Co. [15s. net.]
succession of vicious, corrupt Princes, one only worse- than another. Even public opinion was not purified by any thunderbolt, although, as the seventeenth century advanced, religion—the real thing, not political passion in disguise— lifted up her voice and made sinners more conscious of their sin. As to " unmorality," the new excuse for such an audaciously bad life, for instance, as that of Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Catherine, we are inclined to be so old- fashioned, so far behind the times, as actually to question its existence. It is an easy explanation of "abnormal vice" that its victims do not know the difference between right and wrong. We doubt whether such a happy state of innocence has existed since the Garden of Eden. The influence of public opinion, its presence or absence, life or death. has of course immense power; but conscience, that nearer
authority, needs to be killed by its owner. Marguerite was a clever, courageous, and generous woman ; but however well the words may sound, Pais ce que voudras is a poor rule of life compared with Fats ce que dois ! And we are not told
that Marguerite was an atheist, as her mother was said to be. On the contrary, she wrote quite beautiful words in her Memoirs about devotion to the Creator, about the awakening of the soul "to reject evil and to seek out good," so as best to arrive at "the knowledge and love of God." These may be the words of a sinner, but hardly of a person unconscious of any difference between good and evil.
When all is said, the very best character-study in the book is that of Catherine herself, and we have seldom read anything better than the last chapter, in which the faults and merits—for she had merits—of that hated, solitary, repulsive, unhappy woman are fairly and frankly set forth.
With the knowledge that shows Catherine as most miserable of women and of Queens, it is possible to be sorry for her; it is not possible to feel the smallest touch of liking for her, such as goes towards softening the faults of more really and entirely worthless characters.