Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jean-Vincent Blanchard's "Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France"

Jean-Vincent Blanchard is Associate Professor of French Studies at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Born in Canada and raised in Europe, he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1997. He is a specialist on pre-revolutionary France, with particular emphasis on the seventeenth century, and has published on a broad range of subjects in politics, history, religion, philosophy, and the arts.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, his first book in English, and reported the following:
As I opened Éminence on page 99, I was reminded of the hardest challenge of writing this biography: how to weave the many threads of Cardinal Richelieu’s wildly eventful life—politics, military history, court intrigues, and personal life—to produce a good narrative of how he laid the foundations of France as we know it today, and emerged as the legend that inspired Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.

The following passage comes from a very important chapter in Richelieu’s story: the siege of La Rochelle, an Atlantic port that Richelieu viewed as too politically independent. At La Rochelle, the cardinal showed that he was a daring man of resources. He built a colossal bulwark across the Bay of La Rochelle to isolate the city and prevent an English rescue. France’s enemies took this opportunity to make a few moves of their own. Spanish minister Olivares laid claim to the Italian Duchy of Mantua, in spite of French duke Charles de Nevers’ own rights over the strategic territory.

Adding to the narrator’s burden at this point are the shenanigans of the French royal family. King Louis XIII was depressed and had decided to go hunting in the north. Gaston d’Orléans, the king’s brother and sole heir to the throne, then proved again that he was a perennial troublemaker:
In the months following the death of his wife, while he assiduously patronized those dubious Parisian hangouts “where one very much fears the police chief,” Gaston did not neglect the salons of the aristocracy. Perhaps at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, a woman caught his eye: Marie Louise de Gonzague, who was none other than the daughter of Charles de Nevers. After an intense courtship, Gaston figured he was destined to wed Marie. Her father, of course, viewed this as a positive development at a time when he needed help to secure his hold on Mantua. But given the burden of sustaining La Rochelle’s siege, a prospect made notably longer by the king’s absence, Richelieu could only express sympathy to the duke while skirting any promise of an military intervention in Italy. As far as Gaston’s marriage project was concerned, both Louis and Richelieu would have none of it. The 1626 Conspiracy of the Dames had amply proven the highly sensitive nature of matrimonial alliances. The heir to the French throne was kindly asked not to think of getting married for the moment.

With the king out of sight, and with mounting problems in Italy, Richelieu realized that he had to speed up the siege.
What follows is a scene where Richelieu’s dons his finest armor and decides to mount a direct attack of La Rochelle.

Eventually, Richelieu succeeded in taking La Rochelle, and then he quickly went on to challenge Olivares in Italy. Historians view these decisive actions as milestones in how Richelieu made France a prominent European power.

Inserting a secondary story into a general narrative line might seem like an easy task. But after writing Éminence, I can assure you that doing it at the right time, and with effective transitions, is much harder than it appears!
Learn more about Éminence at the publisher's website and the book's Facebook page.

Writers Read: Jean-Vincent Blanchard.

My Book, The Movie: Éminence.

--Marshal Zeringue