Love and war in the Languedoc
Kate Mosse’s historical novel, set amid religious conflict in France, is ambitious and skilful, writes Stephanie Merritt
The Burning Chambers Kate Mosse
Mantle, £20, pp608
Kate Mosse’s multimillion-selling 2005 novel Labyrinth reinvented her as a novelist, and reinvigorated the historical adventure genre by putting women’s stories firmly at its heart. After the two subsequent novels, Sepulchre and Citadel, that completed her Languedoc trilogy, and a brief diversion into gothic fiction, Mosse has returned to the geographical and historical terrain of Labyrinth and the epic form that suits her storytelling so well.
The Burning Chambers is the first in a planned series charting the Huguenot diaspora from the wars of religion in 16th-century France to 19th-century South Africa, and here a prologue set in a Franschhoek graveyard in 1862 hints at the sweep of the story to come. But this volume is rooted 300 years earlier in the Languedoc, in the city of Carcassonne that Mosse brought so vividly to life in her earlier books, and in Toulouse, where in 1562 the tensions between Catholics and Protestants spilled into violence that fuelled 35 years of civil war.
In this febrile atmosphere Mosse brings together her star-crossed lovers: 19-year-old Minou Joubert, daughter of a Catholic bookseller, and Dutch-born Piet Reydon, a Huguenot convert and leader of the underground movement engaged in raising funds and weapons for the Prince of Condé and his Protestant army. If that wasn’t enough to complicate their relationship, both Minou and Piet guard their own secrets. She has received an anonymous letter bearing an unknown crest and the cryptic message: “She knows that you live.” Piet has been part of a plot to steal a priceless relic, the shroud of Antioch, but has deceived his comrades by passing off a replica and hiding the real shroud. One of Piet’s close associates is found murdered, shortly after a visit to Minou’s father, Bernard, with whom he was once held in an Inquisitional prison. Meanwhile, the narrative is intercut with mysterious extracts from the diary of a woman whose identity the reader begins to piece together from scattered clues, and who appears bent on vengeance. The object of her wrath, the reason for it, and its relation to the main narrative are revealed only gradually, and as this takes shape, Mosse’s skill at marshalling the multiple strands of her story becomes evident. The refrain “old secrets cast long shadows” echoes through the many layers of deception and discovery.
The Burning Chambers is vastly ambitious and in the early chapters the reader may feel dazzled by the sheer number of characters and viewpoints, but Mosse has an instinctive feel for narrative momentum and the pace rarely falters as she moves between the intimate, domestic world, and the jostling for political power that shapes the lives of ordinary men and women. From the unprovoked massacre of a Huguenot congregation at Vassy that ignites the conflict, to the bloodshed in Toulouse, Mosse weaves historical events and figures seamlessly with her own characters, and wears her considerable research lightly, though readers unfamiliar with the period may be grateful for the author’s explanatory note.
The political background to the wars of religion is enormously complex, and Mosse is careful not to simplify it to Protestants good, Catholics bad; there is treachery and honour on both sides, and the fight is not for the ascendancy of one side or the other, but for a higher prize: “Tolerance and dignity and freedom: Piet was ready to lay down his life to defend these principles. He was engaged in a battle for the very soul of France, a battle that would define how men could live and be free.” Mosse does not labour the parallels with the present, but they are all too clearly evident.
Above all, though, The Burning Chambers is a tour de force, a compelling adventure that views the past with insight, compassion and humour, and reminds us of the variety of women’s voices so often forgotten in the official accounts.
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Mosse ‘wears her considerable research lightly’. Photograph by Murdo MacLeod