by Marcelle Thiebaux
Westbow Press, 2012
My knowledge of historical fiction is a bit limited, so I’ll come right out with that. My knowledge of medieval times also comes down to this: there were battles over lady and God; there was chivalry; women were a form of property. Marcelle Thiebaux’s novelization of real-life Princess Margit of Hungary encompasses all three of these elements. Margit, who is eighteen and unmarried, has dedicated her life to God. When he mother was pregnant with Margit, the country was under attack, so the king and queen devoted the unborn child to God if only he would make peace in the land. Peace happened, so Margit takes her devotion very seriously. If she breaks her parents’ promise to God, the destruction of Hungary will be her fault (so she believes). But will she be able to resist her cousin, the handsome twenty-seven-year-old Prince Ottakar, who requests/demands Margit’s hand in marriage? Their union would create peace between two lands. What about Margit’s niece, a fifteen-year-old widow named Cunegonda? Who will have her now that she’s “used up”? The novel includes a map, glossary, list of characters, and discussion questions.
The organization of the extra features of the novel threw me for a loop. I was reading descriptions of other characters told through Margit’s perspective, which seemed odd because I hadn’t been introduced to who she is as a character yet. She also spoils the endings of many characters, claiming, “Who could have foreseen how Rudolf would faithlessly turn to betray [Ottakar]?” The glossary was in the back where one often finds such things, but because this is a novel, I didn’t know it was there until I finished the book, so the information it contained was lost on me.
Margit herself was a completely unlikable person. Sure, she was devoted to God and would punish herself to show her devotion. The descriptions were intense: “I touch the burning cross to my fleshly self. I flow into burning rivers of pain that engulf me. The mouths of pain are exquisite, swallowing and hallowing me. My body sings, my ecstasy rises to an unbearable pitch. I weep joyfully, knowing this is my life and my love.” Talk about your sexualization of pain! I’d be excited if I could forget she’s burning herself with a cross. Getting off on torturing yourself was not something I expected nor cared for, mostly because she held it over others as something to which they should aspire.
However, Margit is not a modest pious person. She takes great satisfaction in what she does, which made her too smug for me to care about her. In fact, her smile often made me hate her. After she meets with a boy whose hand has been cut off, Margit fixes him up and prays over him. She dreads returning home, though, because men are being brought to her to ask for her hand in marriage. She hates the thought and plans to disobey her parents by getting sick (much like any other teenager who doesn’t want to do something): “By pushing myself beyond the limitations of my strength, I may catch a catarrh of the throat and chest. In that case I can offer up my illness in a virtually guaranteed exchange for the boy’s healing. There’s an added advantage. I’ll be too sick to receive the royal wooing party tomorrow. I smile with satisfaction.” Eww, right? It’s hard to like a character who claims she’s devoted to God but is also deceiving others and happy to do it.
I was also confused about Margit’s “beauty.” She’s supposed to be the most beautiful, frail woman in the land, but she’s starving herself to death, beating and burning herself. She insists on doing chores that servants would do (like clean pig intestines), but won’t clean herself. The result is conflicting information: is she a hottie or a hot mess? Cunegonda feels jealous of her “beautiful, disheveled, lice-ridden Aunt Margit–redolent of the compost heap, the stable, and the drainage ditches…” I’m having trouble reconciling the two images I’m meant to have of this princess. The women in the novel can’t stand the smell of her, but the suitors can’t get enough of her. Am I to believe that the other women are simply jealous of lice and manure?
Cunegonda’s story held my attention better than Margit’s. Thinking about being a widow at fifteen and being married to (and having sex with) a man in his sixties is inconceivable to me, so putting myself in her shoes and thinking about my life at fifteen made me ponder something fierce. Of course Cunegonda has a crush on Ottakar; who can resist a handsome, confident prince? But her Aunt Margit is an unmarried princess with first dibs. Aside from Margit rejecting all courtly love, the story really is about Cunegonda’s rise from “used” to love, marriage, and family. The last thirty pages are devoted to Cunegonda and Ottakar, with barely a mention of Margit.
All in all, there is a certain kind of person who might love this novel, especially those who better understand and appreciate medieval times or clamor for true love stories that happen without the difficulties found in modern dating. To find that audience is a challenge Marcelle Thiebaux must rise to.