A tale of medieval chivalry opening with the "baby-marriage" of two little royals of the French court, Henri Beranger Eustache de Ribaumont and Marie Eustacie Rosalie de Ribaumont du Nid-de-Merle, and following the tiny couple's fate in years come.
Text kindly supplied by Amy de Gruchy,
1867 serialised in Macmillan's Magazine
The Chaplet of Pearls is an historical novel set mainly in France between 1559 and 1594, the period of struggle between Roman Catholics following the Reformation. French Protestants adhered to the teaching of Calvin, spread by wandering pastors who served the rapidly growing congregations of Huguenots as the Protestants were called. These congregations were found chiefly in urban areas, in the south of France and those places, such as Normandy where the nobility were either favourable to the new religion or lukewarm in enforcing the savage laws against it.
The movement's chief opponents were of the house of Guise, a noble family so powerful that they overshadowed the throne itself. Many of the other great nobles became Huguenots from conviction, but some from hostility to the ambitious and fiercely catholic Guises. Between these extremes was a smaller party of moderate Catholics led by the Duke of Montmorency. Catherine de Medici the Queen Mother was Regent during her son Charles IX's long minority and retained much influence thereafter. Having failed to resolve the religious differences, she played one side off against the other.
A time came when the Huguenots were numerous enough to rise against their persecutors and a series of wars commenced which lasted effectively until 1594, although punctuated by short-lived peace treaties. In 1572 one of these arranged for freedom of worship for the Huguenots and for a marriage between the sister of King Charles and a young Huguenot leader, King Henri of Navarre. Under safe conduct thousands of Huguenots flocked to the wedding in Paris. Queen Catherine, fearing the influence of their leaders on King Charles organised with the Guises a huge massacre, that of St Bartholomew. Thousands of Huguenots were murdered in Paris and the massacres spread to other towns and cities.
However although most of their leaders were dead or imprisoned the Huguenots fought on. In 1576 Henri of Navarre escaped from prison and led them to many victories. After Catherine de Medici's sons he was heir to the throne, Charles IX had died in 1574, Henri III, his younger brother in 1589. To bring unity and peace to France Henri of Navarre became a Catholic, gaining some concessions for the Huguenots, and finally entered Paris as king of France in 1594.
In her novel C. M. Yonge follows closely the train of historical events, using them freely in her plot and making frequent allusions to them, either in the thoughts and discussions of her characters or through the omniscient narrator. Thus the persecution of the Huguenots causes the hero's father to escape with his family to England. The hero himself is nearly murdered in the massacre of St Bartholomew and the heroine finds a degree of safety in the Huguenot-dominated south of France. The villains of the tale are adherents of the Guise family and Catherine de Medici. The complex political situation in 1572 is the subject of discussion between Walsingham, the English ambassador and the young Philip Sidney. The narrator informs the reader of other matters such as the character of Charles IX and the nature of his mother's influence. Many other historical characters are introduced and influence the course of the hero and heroine's lives.
There is more suspense than is usual in C. M. Yonge's historical novels. The hero and heroine are in frequent danger and the outcome is often left in doubt for some time. Thus Berenger, the hero, is left lying dangerously ill as the narrative switches to the heroine, Eustacie, in peril from her enemies. Later in the novel these enemies discuss their schemes so that the reader is made aware of the dangers of which Berenger and Eustacie are unconscious.
The novel commences with the wedding of two young children arranged to heal a longstanding feud between the two branches of the Ribaumont family. Berenger is the only son of the Baron de Ribaumont, head of the White Ribaumonts. Eustacie is the only child of the Count de Ribaumont, head of the Black Ribaumonts. The marriage greatly displeases the Count's younger brother, the Chevalier de Ribaumont who had wished his son Narcisse to marry the wealthy Eustacie. The Chevalier, his daughter Diane and Narcisse are the villains of the tale and their machinations form the mainspring of the action.
Their early attempts seem to be successful. Eustacie and Berenger while still children, are separated when the count removes his daughter from the Baron's care, and the latter has to flee to England as a suspected Huguenot. Berenger grows up as a member of the English church, while Eustacie is reared in a convent along with her cousin Diane. The next step for the Chevalier is to get the marriage annulled. He succeeds in keeping Berenger, who has returned to France, and Eustacie apart until they have been tricked into signing the document of annulment, but afterwards they meet, fall in love and secretly re-marry. Unaware of this marriage, but aware of their love and planned departure to England the Chevalier and his family conspire to delay them until the massacre of St Bartholomew gives Narcisse the opportunity to try to murder Berenger. All the Black Ribaumonts, including Eustacie, believe that Berenger is dead, and the reader shares the illusion as the narrative turns to Eustacie's reactions until she returns to the convent where she was reared.
The next chapter reveals that Berenger has survived and his faithful servants have taken him back to England. His slow recovery is set back by letters from France. In one, the Chevalier, having learnt that he is alive informs him of the impending marriage of Narcisse and Eustacie, and in the other, a forgery, there is an insulting parting message from the latter, which Berenger disbelieves.
Leaving his recovery again in doubt the narrative returns to Eustacie in her convent. She is found to be pregnant and flees to save her child from the Chevalier and Narcisse. Hidden first by her faithful tenants and then by the Huguenots she has many adventures until she and her baby daughter arrive in a Huguenot town passing as the daughter-in-law of an old Huguent pastor. There she believes herself to be safe, and writes to her mother-in-law in England, telling her news and asking for a home in England for her child. She is unaware that she has already inadvertently betrayed her whereabouts to her enemies, so that when Berenger goes to fetch her he finds the town has been sacked and its inhabitants killed by a band of Catholics led by Narcisse. However he is given reason to believe that his daughter may be alive as a kindly Catholic priest has rescued some of the children and placed the girls in the care of some nuns. Berenger can only see them if the king orders it.
Berenger hurries to Paris to get this order, falls ill again and meets the Chevalier who suggests that he marry Diane, who has fallen in love with him. Berenger refuses. Armed with the dying king's order and unaware that his French servant is in the pay of the Chevalier, Berenger and his stepbrother Philip travel to the convent where the Huguenot children are being reared as Catholics and learn that Eustacie, the child and the old pastor had left the town before its sack. Before he can renew his search for them he and Philip are arrested by order of the king and imprisoned by the Chevalier, and remain in captivity for two years. A spy keeps the Chevalier informed of Eustacie's existence and activities and the reader is then shown how she lives in comparative safety under the protection of the Huguenot Duchesse de Quinet.
The Chevalier's attempts to regain her are unsuccessful and he dies. Diane helps Berenger and Philip to escape, they join king Henri of Navarre who has also just escaped and the Duchesse's son tells them where Eustacie is. Knowing that Narcisse is on her trail they hurry south and reach her just in time. In the battle that follows Narcisse is mortally wounded and dies penitent. Berenger persuades Eustacie to give up her lands to a moderate Catholic who has a better claim on them, and they then return to England while Philip remains in France in the service of the king Henri of Navarre until the latter enters Paris in 1594. The penitent Diane becomes a nun.
The Chaplet of Pearls of the title plays only a minor part in the plot. Borrowed by Eustacie just before St Bartholomew it serves to identify her child to Berenger near the close of the novel and so end his quest.
The theme of the novel is a three fold quest, the quest of Berenger for his lost bride, the quest of Eustacie for safety for herself and her child, and the quest for religious truth. This is exemplified by the experiences of Berenger's friend, the young abbé de Mericour, and to a lesser extent by those of Berenger himself.
The religious teaching is clear. Both young men are repelled by the harshness and dogmatism of the Huguenots, from which Eustacie also suffers, but attracted by the purity of their lives. They are attracted by the forms of worship of the Roman church but repelled by the very low standards of morality of many of its adherents. They find the middle way in a part of the Church of England which combines the beauty of worship found in Roman Catholic churches with high standards of personal conduct. C. M. Yonge was historically correct in claiming that at that time the religious laws in England allowed for a wide variety of interpretation so that some parishes had changed very little of the re Reformation liturgy's contents. Berenger had spent his formative years in such a parish, and Claude de Mericour found his spiritual home there.
Moral teaching of C. M. Yonge's usual kind is in abeyance. The hero has no faults in need of correction and the heroine is left in possession of hers, while the laborious expositions of Diane's temptations could hardly be relevant to the general reader. C. M. Yonge even ignores the opportunity to contrast the good English Lucy, quiet, docile, dutiful and unselfish with the two French girls, self-willed, violent and passionate. Even in educational terms the English nun seems to have done better for her pupil then the French nun did for hers, for Lucy, as practical as Eustacie in household affairs can help her little sister to read Latin while Eustacie knows no foreign language and finds great difficulty in writing letters in her own. Nevertheless the only person who prefers gentle Lucy to high-spirited Eustacie is Berenger's foolish mother.
The main characters and most of the minor ones are well drawn and their relationships are convincing. Eustacie is highly credible, courageous, constant, proud, practical and also mischievous and spiritually shallow. Berenger, reared to be obedient, considerate and gentle, though upright and sensible yields to her whims and demands. In this he may be copying his stepfather's philosophy who accepts his wife's unreasonableness as inevitable in a woman. Much of the humour of the novel is supplied by the scenes between this couple, Berenger's foolish mother and the bluff English squire, her second husband.
Most of the action takes place in France. There is no attempt to distinguish between the landscapes of Normandy, home of the White Ribaumonts and La Vendée where the Black Ribaumonts have been granted confiscated lands. The towns are more fully described. What is shown clearly is the atmosphere of danger, fear and distrust across France. England, represented by rural Dorset, is shown as a haven of peace and order, though the asylum seeker Claude de Mericour has to be rescued from the suspicious peasantry before he finds it so.
For contemporary reviews see L. Madden, J B Shorthouse and C. M. Yonge unpublished thesis, University of London Diploma in Librarianship. 1964.
Battiscombe, Georgina. Charlotte Mary Yonge. The
story of an uneventful life (London: Constable, 1943) pp. 130-133
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