Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
MARGUERITE D’ANGOULÊME, or as she is often styled, Marguerite de Navarre, or Marguerite de Valois, is chiefly known as a writer by the collection of stories entitled the ‘Heptameron’ (in imitation of the ‘Decameron’ of Boccaccio), her only prose work. But a considerable number of poetic writings of hers remain: “moralities,” pastorals, sad “comedies” and serious “farces,”—in Polonius’s phrase, “scenes individable and poems unlimited,” with epistles in verse, and many dixains, chansons, and rondeaux. There are also two volumes of her Letters.  1
  In all this literary production, there is but little that can now or could ever win much applause; but it wins the better meed of sympathy. Marguerite was no artist; she had no sense of form, she had no high aims in literature, she wrote with extraordinary carelessness and prolixity. It is only at moments that her style has grace and color, and still more rarely that it has force. But the feeling that moves her to write is always sincere. Her thoughts always spring from her own intelligence: and therefore while her writings have no touch of egotism, they reveal to a remarkable extent her inner life; and it is a life of peculiar interest. Her reader listens rather than reads as he turns her pages, and what he hears comes not merely from the printed word.  2
  She made constant use of the dramatic form,—of dialogue,—and evidently from the same motive that Montaigne ascribes to Plato: “to utter with more decorum, through diverse mouths, the diversity and variations of her own thoughts.” There is great interest in discovering “her own thoughts” amid these diverse expressions, and this can only be done by becoming familiar with her life. The events in which she was concerned throw an important and touching light on her writings,—the only light by which they can be read intelligently. In this light her famous book ‘Heptameron’ completely changes its character, and instead of being a collection of somewhat coarse and somewhat tedious stories set in a mere frame of dialogues, it becomes a series of interesting and suggestive conversations circling about historic tales.  3
  A sketch of her life is therefore the proper introduction to her writings.  4
  She must be distinguished from her great-niece, the daughter of Henri Deux, with whom she is sometimes confused,—another Marguerite de Valois, and a later Queen of Navarre,—who also was a writer of some importance. The first Marguerite was the sister of Francis the First. In this fact lies the key to the intimacies of her nature. All the affections the human heart is capable of centered for her in Francis. He was not only her brother and her friend, but he was respected by her like a father, and cared for by her like a son; he was (with a weight of meaning difficult of conception by modern minds) supremely her King; he was at moments almost her God. He repaid this fervor of devotion with a brotherly regard that satisfied her; but her content was a proof of her generosity.  5
  Their youth was passed together in the pleasant Château d’Amboise; and their careful education—the education of the Renaissance—happily fostered in them inherited tastes for literature and art.  6
  Marguerite was married at seventeen (in 1509) to the Duke d’Alençon, the first prince of the blood; and when, six years later, Francis became king, she was in a position and of an age to be conspicuous at court, where her intellectual vivacity and social grace made her eminent. Free and gay in speech, eager and joyous in spirit, she amused herself with the brilliant life and with her would-be lovers; and at other hours occupied herself with her books,—books often of divinity,—studies that were molding her character. “Elle s’adonna fort aux lettres en son jeune aage,” says one who knew her; and her interest also in the men who wrote the books of her day was great even then. From the first, she discerned and divined and recognized the most remarkable of the men who surrounded her.  7
  But the startling contrasts that marked the career of King Francis all found their reverberating echo in the heart of Margaret, and made her something very different from a merely intellectual woman. In 1520 came the Field of the Cloth of Gold; in 1525 the battle of Pavia and Francis’s imprisonment and illness at Madrid. Again, 1520 brought the appearance of Luther, and the next year the beginning of persecutions in France; but it was not till the King had gone to Italy that heretics were burned at the stake. That this comparative leniency was greatly due to Margaret’s personal influence with the King is as unquestionable as that it is an error to consider her as herself belonging to the party of the Reformers. Her generous nature could protect the Protestants all her life long, and sympathize with them so keenly as to cause her personal anguish, without sharing their beliefs. This exceptional largeness and liberality has caused Margaret’s relation to the Reformation to be constantly and greatly misunderstood. Her personal character—her own nature—was less akin to the spirit of the Reformation than to that of the Renaissance.  8
  The year 1524 was marked by domestic sorrows. Queen Claude died, truly lamented by her husband and his mother and sister; and two months later one of her little motherless girls died in Margaret’s arms. It was probably the first time she had seen death: she had been summoned to the Queen’s death-bed, and had hurriedly traveled thither, but had arrived too late. The death of little eight-year old Madame Charlotte after weeks of weary illness, spent by her aunt in tender watching, made a profound impression upon Margaret, and was the occasion of a poetical composition—the earliest in date of her extant writings—a dialogue “en forme de vision nocturne” between herself and “l’âme saincte de defuncte Madame Charlotte de France” concerning the happiness of the blessed dead.  9
  In her somewhat mystical mind death was always a subject of meditation; and it is told of her that she once sat long by the bedside of one of her waiting-women whom she loved, who was near death; and she gazed upon her fixedly till the last breath was drawn. And when asked why she had thus eagerly watched, it appeared that she had longed to catch some sight, some sound, of the departing soul; “and she added,” says the contemporary account, “that if her faith were not very firm, she should not know what to think of this separation of the soul from the body; but that she would believe what God and his Church commanded without indulging in vain curiosity. And indeed she was a woman as devout as could be found, and who often spoke of God and truly feared him.”  10
  Within three months of the death of the Queen and Madame Charlotte, the King was a prisoner. Margaret’s religious faith, put to the utmost test, supported her through days of measureless misery, of which there are very touching outbreaks and outpourings among her poems. Again two months, and her husband, the Duke d’Alençon, died. Many years later she wrote a touching and affectionate narrative in verse of the scenes she then witnessed.  11
  The agony of her suffering at the King’s defeat and imprisonment was in some measure lightened by being sent officially to him at Madrid, and empowered to enter into negotiations with Charles the Fifth for his release. Again we find the reflection of these events in her verses. Her position attracted wide interest, and a letter written to her by Erasmus expresses the general feeling:—
          “I have been encouraged,” he says (in effect), “to address some condolences to you in the midst of the tempest of misfortune which now assails you…. Long have I admired the many excellent gifts that God has endowed you with. He has given you prudence, chastity, modesty, piety, invincible strength of mind, and a marvelous contempt for temporal things…. Therefore I am inspired with the desire to congratulate you rather than offer you consolation. Your misfortune is great, I acknowledge; but no event is terrible enough to overthrow a courage founded upon the rock of belief in Jesus Christ.”
  This letter, written in Latin, did not need to be translated to Margaret. And not only did she read Latin easily, but she was familiar with the Greek dramatists and with Plato in the original.  13
  Another period of Margaret’s life opened in 1527, when her second marriage took place, with Henri d’Albret, the young King of Navarre (the nominal King), eleven years younger than herself. It was a marriage of passionate affection on her side, inspired in part, one may be sure, by the misfortunes of this valiant youth, who, taken captive with her brother, had been a prisoner like him for many months, and who had then presented himself at the French court, poor and friendless, but famed for his kindness and justice to his Béarnais subjects. He cannot but have been easily moved to ardent admiration for the sweet, attractive widow of thirty-five, whose recent remarkable sojourn at Madrid had made her famous; still more, she was the sister of the King of France, his liege lord, and recognized as the King’s constant counselor. No question his wooing was vigorous. How strong Margaret’s wishes must have been is shown by her withstanding the opposition of her brother for the only time in her life.  14
  From the moment of this union date the unspeakable sorrows of Margaret’s heart. The position she henceforth occupied as the queen of an outcast and mendicant king, and also as the wife of a soon alienated husband, was one burdened with tragic perplexities public and private. It involved among other bitter trials that of an enforced separation from her only child, Jeanne d’Albret.  15
  The court Marguerite created at Pau and at Nérac, in the impoverished princedom of Béarn, was the meeting-ground of scholars and of poets, of charming women and light-hearted men. Even more, it was the refuge of men persecuted. She possessed the supreme womanly power that when herself in pain, she could comfort; when weak, she could protect; when poor, she could enrich. Her benevolence was one with beneficence. She was the great Consoler of her fellow countrymen,—and not of them alone. Her heart-beats sent vital force to all the numberless unknown suppliants whose eyes were turned toward her, as well as to her oppressed friends who safely put their trust in her.  16
  This exceptional womanliness is to be felt in her writings; and of them as of her life it may be said:—
  “If her heart at high flood swamped her brain now and then
’Twas but richer for that when the tide ebbed agen.”
  She died in 1549, killed by her brother’s death two years before. It was in those last years that Rabelais addressed her as—
  “Abstracted spirit, rapt in ecstasies,
Seeking thy birthplace, the familiar skies;”
but in the same breath he solicited her to listen to “the joyous deeds of good Pantagruel.” Nothing could more vividly note than this the various qualities that met in Margaret,—of sad mysticism and gay humor, of constant withdrawal from the world’s vanities and unfailing interest in the world’s intellectual achievements.
  She has never been so well known, so intelligently understood, so carefully judged, and never so highly honored, as in our own generation. The French scholars of to-day have assigned to her her true place in history, and it is a noble one. But in her lifetime she was loved even more than she was honored: and still and always she will be loved by those who shall know her.  19

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.