Solange’s Petrarch: Reclaiming Female History in Mary Novik’s Muse
by Terri R. Baker
Mary Novik’s Muse (Doubleday Canada, 2013) opens with Solange Le Blanc inside her mother’s womb, listening to the beat of her mother’s heart, experiencing a vision that signals Solange’s future as a prophet. In a story of popes, poets, and muses in fourteenth-century Avignon, this beginning also emphasizes how Solange listens first to her own heart. Set during the Avignon Papacy (1309–77), Muse explores the history of a canonical poet, Francesco Petrarch. Although Petrarch’s most famous love sonnets were addressed to an unattainable blonde beauty, Laura de Sade, Novik imagines Solange as the unknown woman who bore his children. Yet it is the collection of love sonnets that Petrarch wrote to Laura – just as another collection of love sonnets was at the center of her first novel, Conceit (Doubleday Canada, 2007) – that inspired a Renaissance in literature that is still studied today. During her career in academia, Novik studied and taught these sonnets.
“I loved the literature that I taught,” says Novik, “but I was never allowed to bring biography into the picture. I am interested in creating a story and putting [biography and an author’s works] together, imagining a story behind the actual finished poems of these authors.”
Although Novik explores the private life of Petrarch, it is her feminist sensibility that dominates, reclaiming a lost female history through the familiar physical, emotional, and mental cycles that many women across history share. From Solange’s birth to her apprenticeship as a scribe, we empathize with her, especially when tragedy thrusts her from a sequestered home to the cruel outside world. Despite Novik’s focus on feminine cycles and challenges in historical settings, however, there is a tendency for reviewers to categorize historical fiction about women connected to famous men as explorations of the story of the woman behind the great man. Novik resists this kind of categorization.
“I didn’t set out to write that kind of story,” she says, explaining how the scarcity of information on Muse’s Solange and Laura inspired her to explore their histories creatively. “We have letters by the men that may allude to the women. We may have birth, death, and marriage records, if they survived. But the only documentation we really have on these women is the references in the literature produced by men. Even Laura de Sade, a noblewoman, has precious little written about her.”
Before Laura, Novik imagines, Petrarch loved an earthly muse, Solange, a character created from what Novik calls “historical scraps.” Opposing Laura as Petrarch’s ideal of spiritual, unrequited love, Solange is his ideal of earthly, physical love. Through her representation of these different ways of loving, Novik participates in the criticism of literary representations of women. She explores how the idealization of women in male-authored literature sabotages female identities, thus entering into what Novik calls a “conversation with authors of the past.”
“That conversation is something that I’ve always had,” she says, referring to her studies and teaching of English literature. “I want to be part of a literary tradition. That is my subject matter as well.”
It is this intimate understanding of both the works of these poets and the ambition that drove them that inspires Novik to also explore the dark side of literary genius.
“I see poets as real people,” she says. “The poet is probably more likely to go through the window [that separates us from our dark side] than others. That is the nature of the poet.”
It is Novik’s representation of the dark side of Petrarch – known as the “first great humanist of the Italian Renaissance”1 – that is one of the most compelling features of Muse. Novik’s depiction of Petrarch’s rejection of Solange after encountering Laura contrasts starkly with his continued correspondence with Solange and need for her aesthetic critique of his poetry. Despite Petrarch’s rejection, Solange – lover, scribe, prophet, and mother to Petrarch’s children – fights for her rightful place at Petrarch’s side.
1. Monfasani, John. “Petrarca, Francesco. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved 23 Aug. 2013. Web.
About the contributor: TERRI R. BAKER is a Ph.D. candidate and an instructor in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. Her dissertation examines Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 66, November 2013