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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

In The Name Of The Family - a review

In The Name Of The Family by Sarah Dunant, Virago, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84408-4, 453pp

I picked up this book at the same time as John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I had not read any of Boyne’s books before and neither had I read any of Sarah Dunant’s. Although my enjoyment of “In The Name Of The Family” was not entirely complete, I will certainly read more of her work. The book is subtitled “A novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias” and it was the subtitle that attracted me. The Borgias in the late 15th and 16th centuries were among the most unpleasant people ever to have walked the face of the earth. I was once foolish enough to do a course in political philosophy at university. One of the books we read was “The Prince” by the very Niccolò Machiavelli referred to in the subtitle. He was an interesting, if not especially attractive man. Indeed, like the Borgias, he was downright unpleasant … but very bright and as cunning as a fox. Coincidentally I had also just finished reading John Julius Norwich’s “Four Princes” (Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, and Suleiman the Magnificent). The four princes are just about contemporaneous with the period covered in Dunant’s book, namely 1502 - 1503 with a brief afterword in 1513. So, there was something coming together; fate, as usual, was in charge.

Dunant’s history is impeccable. The late 15th and early 16th centuries were a turbulent time for Italy, although there wasn’t really such a country. What became Italy was a collection of independent kingdoms, duchies, principalities and republics. The story covers just a year in the period that is sometimes referred to by historians as the Italian Wars. The central characters are Pope Alexander VI (who was a Borgia), his son Cesare Borgia and his daughter Lucrezia Borgia. This was a time when it was acceptable for a Pope to sire children and Alexander VI had a series of mistresses and he had at least one, and possibly five, other children. Nepotism was rife in the church; Alexander made Cesare a cardinal when he was seventeen. Cesare was the first person to resign a cardinalcy. He did so in order that he could pursue a military campaign to create a Borgia state in northern Italy that would be funded by his father. Dunant’s book is partly about Cesare’s military campaigning and about the deteriorating relationship with his father.

The book is also about Lucrezia and her relationship with her brother. Lucrezia’s first marriage was annulled allegedly on the grounds of his impotence. She married again to Alfonso d'Aragon who was murdered when he outlived his political usefulness. Alexander arranged for a more politically acceptable marriage to Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara with whom she had eight children.

The Machiavelli connection in the story seems a little contrived. In Dunant’s book he is sent as envoy by the Florentine government to the nascent Borgia state. Dunant represents him as a clever and wily diplomat but does not tie him into the story closely enough. There is no apparent connection between Machiavelli and Lucrezia nor (in the book) between Machiavelli and Alexander. In my opinion this is a pity as there is an exciting story to be told but Dunant isn’t quite telling it, possibly because there is too much to tell. She says in her afterword that the reason she is “so intoxicated with history is that it so often trumps anything a novelist’s imagination could come up with.” She’s quite right about that and her writing is good and engaging. Her novelist’s imagination allows her to invent where it helps her story and she misses out a pope (sins that she confesses to). She also says that the Borgias’ story was “the biggest challenge of all”. That she has risen to the challenge is not in doubt; whether she could have done more to tie the threads of the plot together is an open question.

Nonetheless I shall read more of her books (there are another ten novels) and, if you have any interest in mediaeval European history, I suggest that you too read this one. The John Julius Norwich book I refer to is also worth a read even if you think you know your European history. It shows that contacts between Christianity and Islam have existed for hundreds of years. This is the topic of the recently published “The Sultan and the Queen” by Jerry Brotton (though I found this book a little dull).

Additional reading:

Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, and Suleiman the Magnificent and the obsessions that forged modern Europe, John Julius Norwich, John Murray (Publishers), 2016, ISBN 978-1-47363-295-0, 288pp

The Sultan and The Queen: the untold story of Elizabeth and Islam, Viking, 2016, ISBN 978-0-5254-882-4, 338pp

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