Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing the bloody religious wars of France in the 16th and early 17th centuries, get a good press as immigrants who settled in England quickly and without trouble. It was a little surprising then, reading Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, to see Burgess have the poet Christopher Marlowe give the French immigrants a good rhetorical kicking. He is talking to the spymaster Francis Walsingham, who is sending him on a mission to the low countries. For Walsingham, the Huguenots are brothers in faith, and indeed brothers in arms in the great continental showdown between Protestantism and Catholicism. Marlowe, who has lived alongside them, takes a rather dimmer view:
Canterbury [Marlowe complains] is my town and it is infested with Huguenots.
—Infested, you say infested? They are our brethren in arms, they are of the reformed faith. You do not know of the Bartholomew butchering? You will use another word.
—Indiscreet, I apologise. But it is only honesty to say that the Huguenots are not liked in Canterbury. They were moved inland from the coast to check their buccaneering. The city is full of them. They have taken possession of the river for water for their weaving. They bring no trade, they have their own bakers and butchers.
—Would you, Walsingham browed at him, rather have a Catholic Englishman than a French protestant?
—You try to trick me. But it is true to say that some men of Canterbury are driven back to the secret practice of the old faith because they do not like these Huguenots with their French prayer-books. That is in the nature of how humanity behaves. Blood is thicker than belief.
As if to underline the point that ‘blood is thicker than belief’, Marlowe find that the French he meets in Europe have scarcely more fellow feeling for English Catholic exiles than the Protestant Englishmen do for their French brethren, mocking their plight and making fun of their queen. Religion aside, the French are French, it seems, and the English Are English.
The Huguenots have a bit part in Burgess’s novel, but they are at the centre of Robert Merle’s epic 13 book Fortunes of France series, which Pushkin Press have recently begun to translate into English. The series tells the life-story of Pierre de Siorac, a young Huguenot from the Perigord region of France, as he navigates his way through the bitter religious wars, plagues and upheavals of the 16the century.The first novel relates the story of the protagonist’s father and brother who made their fortune as soldiers and buy a castle in Perigord with their spoils. Early in the book, visiting a neighbour, they come into contact with a beautiful young woman:
…at that very moment a gracious maiden entered the great hall, clothed in a very low-cut morning dress, her blonde hair falling freely about her shoulders… His heart gave a mighty leap at the sight of this white breast sculpted with the grace of a swan, while, for her part, the maiden returned his gaze with her large blue eyes. As he limped forward to exchange greetings with her, Sauveterre caught sight of a medallion on her breast which displeased him mightily.
The medallion is of the Virgin Mary, anathema to these two staunch Calvinists. The boy’s father falls for the woman despite the medallion she wears and her steadfast Catholicism. She gives birth to the protagonist, but the married couple’s differing faith is a constant source of tension, The man’s brother saw it all coming, of course, chastising him gently:
“Would it not have been wiser to marry a woman of your own faith? Though her breast lay underneath her medallion, it nevertheless hid her Catholic icon from your sight.”
It seems blood isn’t the only thing stronger than belief…
A Dead man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage Classics 2010
The Brethren, Fortunes of France Volume 1, Robert Merle, Translated T. Jefferson Kline, Pushkin Press, 2015