The Idol by Robert Merle - review by Rosemary Stoyle

Rosemary Stoyle

Poor Girl Makes Good

The Idol


Collins Harvill 363pp £12.95 order from our bookshop

In the case of Vittoria Accoramboni: for the prosecution, John Webster, dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare; for the defence, Robert Merle, novelist born in the early years of this century. Webster gave her a bad reputation and the lead part in The White Devil and Merle wishes to restore her character in his latest book The Idol. Unlike Webster he does not call Vittoria herself to witness, but leaves the reader as jury to weigh the words of her contemporaries, as he imagines them.

Vittoria was a girl of remarkable beauty and unusual education but without wealth or that elevation in sixteenth century society which would have allowed her the opportunities of an Isabella d’Este or a Vittoria Colonna. She was twice married, twice widowed, and died at the hands of assassins. Her first husband was a good man and nephew of Cardinal Montalto, a gentleman considered, and later proven, ‘papabile’ – capable of becoming Pope. One night Vittoria’s husband was lured outside by a message, purporting to come from her brother Marcello, and murdered. She, rather too soon, prepared to marry Prince Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. Popular suspicion fell upon both and Pope Gregory XIII (of the revised calendar) issued a precetto forbidding the marriage. But of course that was not the end of the story…

It is hard to read historical novels single-mindedly. There is always the nagging question: Is this bit fact or fiction, guesswork or scholarship or complete fabrication? Seductive as it is, there is a certain anxiety that invention will get stored away mentally in our ‘genuine’ pigeon-hole. Helpfully Merle cites his

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