This reading group guide forMadame Serpentincludes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When fourteen-year-old Caterina de’ Medici arrives in Marseilles to marry the Henry, Duke of Orléans, second son of the King of France, she brings with her all the cleverness, cunning, and spirit that runs strong in the Medici blood. She also brings a broken heart.
Soon, however, a growing passion for her new husband and the promise of a Medici heir one day occupying the throne of France transforms Caterina—the reluctant bride—into Catherine, the youngest member of the glittering French court. But Henry has eyes for only the much older Diane de Poitiers. Fueled by jealousy, Catherine schemes to attain the affections of the man who is rightly hers . . . and no one can stand in her way.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.As a child, what does Catherine learn from her Aunt Clarissa, from Pope Clement VII, and from the sisters of the convent of Santa Annunziate delle Murate? How do these lessons serve her at court as Dauphiness and later as Queen?
2.Do you think Catherine ever truly left her Medici roots behind? At what points in the novel is her loyalty to France tested? Do you believe Catherine’s devotion lies with France or with the Medicis?
3.Anne d’Etampes and Diane de Poitiers are very alike in their ambitions, their appearances, and their cleverness. What characteristics set the two women apart? How does Anne and Francis’s relationship differ from Diane and Henry’s? What are the effects of Anne and Diane’s enmity?
4.Jean Plaidy writes of Francis and Henry: “It was Francis’s nature to forget what was unpleasant; but Henry never forgot his friends . . . nor his enemies” (page 118). How does Francis’s and Henry’s conflicting natures affect their father-son dynamic? Why do they dislike each other? Might Francis and Henry have reconciled if it were not for Anne and Diane sowing ill will?
5.Francis often thinks of Henry VIII of England. What do his reflections about Henry reveal about himself and about what he fears and desires? What does Francis believe they have in common? How is he affected by Henry’s death?
6.Catherine believes that Henry’s affair with a Piedmontese woman is more of a disgrace for Diane than for herself, but Diane handles it so skillfully that she is admired. In what other instances does Diane thwart Catherine’s desire to see her humiliated? Does Catherine underestimate Diane?
7. Shortly before Francis’s death, Catherine suggests a snow fight to amuse him, one that ends in tragedy. What do you think this snow fight symbolizes for their relationship? How is Catherine’s role in the fight typical of her role in the court and its conflicts?
8. Catherine sums up the Catholic-Protestant conflict thus: “But what was the difference? One believed in pomp and ceremony; the other in austerity. Who should say which would best please God?” (page 290). Why is she untroubled by this conflict? Why are Henry, Diane, and Montmorency so violently opposed to the Protestants? Does the incident with the tailor change Henry’s feelings?
9. Why does Catherine see young Mary of Scotland as a threat? Do you think Mary is more like Catherine or Diane? Explain.
10. Could Catherine have eventually won Henry’s love? What do you think motivates her? Love, jealousy, humiliation, or something else? If Diane had died before Henry, do you think he would finally love Catherine? Do you think she would have been satisfied if he did?
11. Is Catherine de’ Medici reprehensible or resilient? Are her actions justified by her upbringing, her emotions, and the machinations of the court? Do you think “Madame Serpent” is an apt name for her?
12. At the end of the novel, “The future, brilliant and powerful, stretched out before [Catherine]; and she was free to take what she wanted. She had been the victim of her emotions—hot-blooded, impetuous, making so many mistakes. . . . But now she was free” (page 404). In what ways is Catherine a “victim of her emotions”? What is it that she is now free to take?
13. What impression does the novel give of the French court, the Pope, and of monarchs in general? Are they effective rulers of their countries and countrymen? What are their primary concerns? Consider the military campaigns of Francis and Henry, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the revolts against Pope Clement and the salt tax.
14. Anne d’Etampes, Diane de Poitiers, and even Catherine had great influence in the French court, but what was its source? When Francis and Henry died, Anne and Diane lost their power. How does the lot of these aristocratic French women compare with that of women in later centuries? With women today?
15. Discuss Jean Plaidy’s portrayal of romantic love. Which relationships are characterized by sincere love and which by a more artificial love? How does the pursuit of power interfere with or encourage the characters’ love and loyalty? How do the relationships of the couples of the French court compare with those of today’s powerful or political couples?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. If your group longs to know what lies in store for Catherine, consider reading the second book in the Medici Trilogy, The Italian Woman.
2. Visit www.chenonceau.com to browse pictures of Chenonceau, the château that Catherine loved, and imagine the grandeur of the French court during Francis’s and Henry’s reigns. Do the pictures match the descriptions of Chenonceau in this novel? Does it look the way you imagined?
3. Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers are the subjects of many paintings. Have each member in your book club research and select one of either Catherine or Diane. Bring your choices to your book club discussion to compare. How do the pictures differ? Which one best matches your idea of Catherine de’ Medici or Diane de Poitiers looked like?