Written in two volumes totaling just over 800 pages, The two Dianas in this tome are Diana de Poitiers, the long-time mistress of Henry II of France and their daughter Diana. On his eighteenth birthday Gabriel de Montgommery is told the truth about his birth, that he is the son of Count Jacques de Montgommery who disappeared mysteriously after his mistress Diana de Poitiers caught the eye of Henry, then Dauphine of France. Gabriel’s childhood playmate Diana suddenly finds herself revealed as the daughter of King Henry and de Poitiers and the King has arranged for her to be married to the Duke of Castro, although at twelve it’s to be a marriage in name only.
Several years pass as Gabriel aims for fame and fortune under the guise of the Viscount d’Exmes (it being too dangerous to use the de Montgommery name), and a widowed Diana charms the French court as a most favored daughter of the King. When the two meet again, it’s love at first sight (of course), but a deep secret emerges that if true could bar the two from becoming lovers – and if not true the hatred Henry bears Gabriel’s father also threatens to keep them apart. The only person who can answer the puzzle is a mysterious prisoner who has been locked away in Châtelet prison and forgotten, forbidden to utter a word.
“….and so, filled with wonder at the remarkable contrast between the two Dianas, he said to himself that God had no doubt filled the daughter with such excellent virtues in order to make good the crimes of the mother.”
In Volume I Gabriel and Diana’s story interweaves with that of Henry, his wife Catherine de Medici, the cold hearted Diana de Poitiers and the machinations of the French court as well as the siege of Saint Quentin and the recapture of Calais as Gabriel is willing to risk all to gain Henry’s goodwill and hold him to his promise to release the prisoner in the Châtelet. In Volume II, fate and circumstances beyond his control compel Gabriel ever closer to The Last Tourney and his destiny as foretold by Nostradamus,
“En joute, en amour, cettuy touchera
Le front du roy,
Et cornes ou bien trou sanglant mettra
Au front du roy,
Mais le veuille ou non, toujours blessera
Le front du roy ;
Enfin, l’aimera, puis, las ! le tuera
Dame du roy.”
“In game, in love, cettuy touch
The front of the King,
And horns or bloody hole will
In front of Roy,
But like it or not, always hurt
The front of the king;
Finally, love, and then, las! the kill
Dame du roy.”
The latter part of Volume II switches gears and concentrates less on the two lovers and more on the growing unrest between the Catholics and the Huguenots, the Amboise conspiracy, as well as the battle for power and control of the throne between the de Guises and Catherine de Medici, and might be a bit slow paced for some readers (especially if you’re not familiar with the period), but I found it fascinating. I was fortunate enough to have read a couple of books recently that deal with the same period and characters, but don’t be afraid to spend a bit of time researching them if you’re feeling lost as to who’s who. No lengthy author’s notes or genealogy charts in these 100 year old volumes.
This was a fabulous read packed with star-crossed lovers, mystery, treachery, intrigue and more – let alone the addition of Martin Guerre and his infamous look-alike as Gabriel’s squire. ROFL at the predicaments poor Martin always found himself embroiled in at the hands of Arnold du Thull. What a joy to accidentally come across this long-forgotten Dumas, and I heartily recommend it to any Dumas fan or those interested in reading up on this period in France’s history – although the real Diana de Castro’s fate is different from what Dumas wrote.
Side note: I do see that this has been published recently by two different publishing houses and without being able to compare the text online I would tread cautiously. Both claim to have 400 pages (a tad bit less than the 800 I read), let alone knowing who translated it – a bad Dumas translation can turn a great book into something quite mediocre. From looking at the online sellers there are plenty of the 1910 Collier editions available for sale – and don’t forget to try for an interlibrary loan. You might get lucky, I did.