In the Name of the Family
Sarah Dunant, bestselling author of five historical novels, talks to Charlotte Wightwick about the challenges of writing historical fiction and how Machiavelli nearly broke her new book.
Sarah Dunant’s second novel about the Borgias, In the Name of the Family (Virago UK / Random House US, 2017), is a rich and convincing portrait of the beauty and brutality of Renaissance Italy. It covers Pope Alexander VI’s attempts to build a lasting heritage for his children, Lucrezia and Cesare. Lucrezia is married into the powerful and cultured d’Este family, while Alexander funds Cesare’s attempts to create a military super-state for himself. Meanwhile, a young Florentine diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, watches in fascination.
When comparing writing her new novel with her previous book on the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, Dunant says:
“They were very different… in the first book, the family was very often together, so there was a domestic intensity about this kind of love-hate cauldron, whereas in the second book they’re scattered. So my job was to tell three stories, the Pope’s story, Cesare’s story, and Lucrezia’s.… And then of course, then I realised I had a fourth story, which was Machiavelli’s, so that was the big challenge.
“Each book that you ever write throws you a version of the question: this is too difficult, I can’t do this. And so with Blood and Beauty, it was ‘I’ve never written about real people at this level.’ I walked into In the Name of the Family knowing that I could write about real people, except of course, there was one person I’d never write about because he’s far too complicated, and his after-life is far too divisive, and that’s Niccolò Machiavelli. But then History says, ‘I’m sorry, Sarah, you want to write a book about the end of the Borgias; you can’t avoid him.’ So he was the challenge. And he very nearly broke the book for me, I didn’t know how to do him. I was frightened.”
Thankfully, Dunant was not daunted for long, and her beautifully-drawn characters are one of the highlights of the novel. Discussing how she makes decisions when the historical evidence is patchy, she says;
“Well, what you do is very much like what a historian does, you weigh up all the evidence that you have, and the novelist in you adds to that the psychological portrait that you have been able to create about the characters involved in this hazy moment of history, and so the mixture of contemporary evidence and your knowledge of personality allows you to take a very good educated guess.”
Using this approach, Dunant has painted a series of convincing, very human portraits: Machiavelli, who we see not only as the author of The Prince, but also as a younger man with a new wife, starting out on his diplomatic career; Lucrezia, whose relationship with her husband is marred by misunderstandings and who is tempted to flirt with her courtiers, but is far too savvy to take things further; Cesare, whose frustrated ambitions (and possibly the onset of syphilitic madness) result in increasingly erratic behaviour; and throughout, the Pope, driven by the twin spurs of love of power and love for his children.
It isn’t just detailed historical research or fascinating characters that make this book shine, however: it is also the fact that Dunant retains some of her own roots – she was a writer of thrillers before she came to historical fiction:
“I also wanted to write something which was a bit of a thriller. It takes a long time to read a novel, so you’ve really got to take your reader by the scruff of the neck. It all has to look like it’s effortless, and you want to keep turning the page.”
Trust me, you will.
About the contributor: Charlotte Wightwick writes reviews and articles for the HNS. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel, The Lady with an Ermine, set in Renaissance Milan, and writing her second.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 79, February 2017