This, like Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel born from a painting, from a striking face that seems to look out at us across centuries and to spark a shock of fellow-feeling. While Tracey Chevalier’s famous book took its inspiration from the coy glance of a Dutch teenager, Sinclair’s story is inspired by a much more direct confrontation: Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Don Sebastián Morra, in the Prado, dating from 1645. Using this powerful image as a starting point, Sinclair reimagines Morra’s life in a fictional biography that carries us from the bleak shores of Normandy to the glitter of Paris in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain, oddly enough, features less than you might expect. It is an ambitious book, and its championship of this fascinating but obscure figure is to be celebrated; but ultimately the novel is a fantasy, which makes no reference to the few known facts of Morra’s life. Moreover, it never quite manages to overcome some stylistic and compositional shortcomings.
It’s certainly a face to reckon with. Sebastián Morra stares out of his portrait, evidently unimpressed. He frowns, fists planted on his knees, a brooding presence despite the fact he’s been painted wearing a parody of the king’s own costume. If Morra is meant to be a jester, one gets the sense no one has told him; or Velazquez. The artist paints him as if he’s been thrown against the wall, like a discarded doll. His fists are shapeless, almost like the wooden hands of a mannequin. Is Velazquez trying to suggest that the Spanish treated their court dwarfs like dolls, rather than the men and women they really were? It’s tempting to think that. All we know about Sebastián Morra is that he returned to Madrid in 1643, having been working in Flanders for the Cardinal Infante, Philip IV’s younger brother. Velazquez’s portrait was painted two years later, and the fact it was painted at all tells us that Morra must have been held in high esteem, because at this point the artist wasn’t painting more than one or two portraits every year. We know that, back in Madrid, Morra entered the service of Philip IV’s infant son Balthazar Carlos. But that’s about it.
I was drawn to the novel because I wanted to understand more about the man in the portrait. I was curious to know what it might have been like to serve at the Spanish court in this period, especially as a dwarf: someone whose presence was ubiquitous but who was treated as little more than an attribute, like a sceptre or a feathered hat. But that isn’t what I found in the book. Instead, Sinclair has created a life for Morra that seems to ignore what little evidence we do have about him, and creates a completely different background for him as a trusted agent to none other than Cardinal Richelieu himself. I choose to give Sinclair the benefit of the doubt and to presume that there is some proof, somewhere, that Morra did indeed spend time at the French court. Otherwise, we run into awkward questions about why the main character has to be Morra at all.
Our Sebastian is born in Normandy, the eldest son of a couple of peasant farmers, and his physical disadvantages are offset by a bright and enquiring mind. Failing to find any of the usual kind of employment, he’s sent to the local priest, where he sits in on a class for sons of the gentry and learns Latin and Greek. His classmates will go on to become priests, but there is no such comfort in store for Sebastian: in the hope of finding work as a clerk, he goes to Paris, where instead he finds himself struggling to scrape a living on the streets. For once, here, his size becomes a bonus: on the verge of penury, he’s taken into the king’s court and becomes an entertainer, jumping out of pies and performing satirical plays, while using his own time to read and compose dramas. An unfortunate run-in with the arrogant young Marquis de Cinq-Mars presents Sebastian with an enduring enemy, but the encounter also brings good fortune: Cinq-Mars’s guardian is none other than his Eminence himself, Cardinal Richelieu, the man who sits in the shadows and keeps his finger on the pulse of the nation. And it just so happens that Richelieu may have a vacancy for a sharp-eyed, smart, modestly-proportioned spy.
This should have been a rollicking tale of intrigue, but I often found myself thinking back wistfully to Dumas’s Red Sphinx. The problem is that Sinclair’s novel is full of telling. Scenes are not driven by conversations between characters, or by actions which we can interpret for ourselves: instead, we are constantly told exactly what Sebastian (or Louis, or the Cardinal) are thinking, and the prose consequently feels like an infodump even though, with a bit more leggerezza, it could have flowed more smoothly. As we’re always being told about things, rather than seeing them for ourselves, it’s hard to engage with the characters, even poor Sebastian, who suffers absolutely ghastly treatment from Cinq-Mars without anyone ever seeming to notice, let alone care (I found this increasingly disturbing, especially towards the end). And yet, apart from this physical abuse, Sebastian seems to glide through life very easily. Opportunities simply open up for him and, for example, he’s only met Cardinal Richelieu a few times before he becomes a bosom confidant of that great lord.
This is where alarm bells started ringing. Certainly, Sebastian’s story allows us to come close to Richelieu and to see the more human side of the great puppet-master. But I can’t help thinking it most unlikely that someone of Richelieu’s stature would confide so quickly in one of his agents, let alone summon said agent for heart to hearts. Sebastian’s relationship with Richelieu didn’t seem to grow organically out of the story: on the contrary, it felt as if it was there because we needed to know what was going on at court and Sebastian’s conversations with Richelieu would give us that information.
If I found that hard to credit, then Sebastian’s brief sojourn at the Spanish court (spoiler alert) towards the end of the novel was even more incredible. First of all, we’re told simply that Sebastian arrives at the Spanish court with a letter of introduction and is immediately taken in, with no suspicion that he’s a French spy, despite the fact that he has a French accent and that his letter has presumably been written by Richelieu. Where does Sebastian live at the Spanish court? Does he speak Spanish? If not, how does he communicate? Why does no one think it odd that this sudden arrival is loitering around the King’s Cabinet? Is it truly possible that a suit of armour sized to fit a six-year-old child would fit a dwarf in his thirties? I imagine that the proportions would be entirely wrong. I certainly don’t believe that Sebastian would have been able to fool the child’s own father. Nor do I think it likely that the disappearance of an important treaty, and the departure of a very short-term French-speaking guest, wouldn’t be connected.
The most annoying thing is that I wanted to like this book. I love stories which throw light onto people who’ve been pushed into the margins of history. And I do like a good bit of court intrigue. Unfortunately, though, I just couldn’t engage with this novel. It’s as if I were looking at a circuit board, trying to fix it to illuminate an LED. All the components are here, but they just aren’t fitted together in the way that makes magic happen. The same scenes, written with a lighter touch, with more conversation and with a deeper psychological intensity, could have been gripping, but ultimately I feel as if I’ve floated uncomfortably along on the surface of a story that turns out not even to have been particularly historical. I don’t feel that I know any more about the real Sebastian Morra. The man in the portrait remains a compelling, frustrating mystery.
Doubtless I am, once again, being harsh. I don’t like being critical, especially when people look as nice as Sinclair does in his author photo. Fortunately lots and lots of people disagree with me and think this is an absolutely wonderful book, so please don’t let me put you off. There are thirty five-star reviews on Amazon at the time of writing, which proves how broadly opinions can vary. Please do give it a go if you fancy a bit of espionage and plotting in the ancien régime. Indeed, if you’ve read this and would like to stand up for this vision of Sebastian Morra’s life, please do so! I’d love to get some other points of view below the line, because I never like it when I don’t enjoy something, and I think it’s important to offer different points of view where possible. What have I missed?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review