The Brethren: Robert Merle

Fortunes of France: Book I

First published in 1977, The Brethren was followed by a whole series of novels which trace the fortunes of the de Siorac family in late 16th-century France. The French editions have been tremendously successful and Pushkin published this English translation of the first volume earlier this summer. I was delighted to be invited to review it, partly because it was compared to Dumas and Dunnett, but primarily because the blurb included the word ‘swashbuckling’ and that was too much to resist. There hasn’t been enough swashbuckling around here recently. This must be rectified.

Jean de Siorac and his close friend Jean de Sauveterre have earned wealth and renown in the French army but, when de Sauveterre is wounded, they decide it is time to withdraw from the forces and make a life for themselves as country gentlemen. With three of their soldiers they go south to de Siorac’s native region of Périgord, where they acquire the château of Mespech, near the town of Sarlat. In so doing, the two men find themselves drawn into the web of local rivalries, friendships and obligations. Although some of their neighbours prove to be friendly – such as the de Caumont family, who provide de Siorac with his pretty wife Isabelle – others threaten to throw a hostile shadow over them – such as the ambitious Baron de Fontenac, who had hoped to swallow Mespech into his own lands. But the two Jeans don’t just have to negotiate the political landscape: there’s also the prickly question of religion, for these captains are Huguenots, followers of Calvin’s teachings, and that’s no easy thing in a close-knit local community where Catholic resentment against outsiders runs strong. It’s a religious struggle that’s enacted even within the walls of Mespech, as de Siorac’s wife Isabelle is a devout Catholic and her husband an increasingly obdurate Protestant.

The book follows the establishment of this little community at Mespech, with its soldiers and servants, nurses, maids and tenants, and much of its appeal lies in the description of how these sprawling 16th-century households worked, when the term ‘family’ extended beyond blood relations to dependants and all manner of hangers-on. But, even as Mespech grows, clouds gather on the horizon: the spectres of plague and drought and, more dreadful and bloody still, the prospect of religious civil war.

There’s much I enjoyed about the book. It has an endearing narrator in Pierre, the younger son of de Siorac, who is writing the story at a much later date and frequently ends up referring to his father’s Book of Reason, which seems to be a family chronicle crossed with an account book. Thanks to Pierre we get a vivid picture of the two captains who have dominated his childhood: de Siorac, larger-than-life, vivacious and all-too-ready to be distracted by feminine wiles; and de Sauveterre, serious and devout, a professed bachelor. Pierre himself follows his father in being quite ready to have his head turned by pretty girls (and proves to be quite shockingly precocious in that respect), and his memories of the house at Mespech are enlivened by furtive adolescent flirtation. You really do get a sense of the affectionate ties that bind all the characters together and, at the same time, the way that everyone knows their place in the hierarchy: although Pierre admires and respects his parents, for example, he hasn’t really been brought up by them and doesn’t love them as much as he loves his wet-nurse who has raised him. And the novel is steeped in the everyday hard grind of early-modern country life: the haying, the need to defend home and family against bands of vagabonds or gypsies, and the bitter consequences of a poor harvest.

As an historical aside, I was interested to see that the two Jeans – the ‘Brethren’ of the title – enter into a mutual adoption before buying Mespech: a phenomenon I’d read about in passing but never really looked into before. It’s more than a business partnership: it’s a way to cement friendship in a legally recognised way, by literally adopting one another as brothers and heirs, both under the law and in the eyes of society.

However, it does all have a strangely old-fashioned feel for a novel published in the late ’70s. Occasionally rather detached, and tending towards description rather than action, it could easily have been written several decades earlier and there were times I found it slightly hard going. It is lightened here and there by some comic characters, such as the overly superstitious cook La Maligou, but even so it doesn’t have quite the panache or humour of Dumas, or the gripping characterisation and playfulness of Dunnett. It also (as you might expect, given the subject) has a profound religious conviction underpinning all aspects of the story and I was most surprised to discover, in the author’s preface, that he was actually Catholic, because he perfectly manages to convey the Protestant fervour of his protagonists to such an extent that I’d assumed it must betray his own feelings. That’s a testament to his writing. But the strong religious element, plus the rather sedate and earnest style, reminded me much more of something like Kristin Lavransdatter than Dumas.

It may well be that this novel simply lays out the foundation for the rest of the series and that, as time goes on and Pierre is freed from the sober influences of de Sauveterre, things will become a little sparkier. As it is I’m keen to read the next instalment and see how things go, but I feel I should stress that you may not find quite what you’re expecting if you come to this looking for the next Dumas. Nevertheless it’s an authoritative, sensitive and vivid picture of 16th-century France and it has a very convincing period quality to it, so for those who enjoy long, detailed historical sagas this might be just the ticket.

Buy the book

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

2 thoughts on “The Brethren: Robert Merle

  1. Helen says:

    I received a review copy of this one too and am reading it now, though I'm not quite finished yet. I was also intrigued by the comparisons with Dunnett and Dumas (and the mention of swashbuckling, of course) but while I am enjoying it, it hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. I do want to continue with the series, though!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I did suspect you might have been contacted too! Yes, it's a funny thing, isn't it? Doesn't quite come to life in the way you expect, but is also quite compelling in a quiet way. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts when you've finished!

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