Robert Merle’s The Brethren is the first in a 13 volume series of historical novels published in France between 1977 and 2003 which have now finally begun the process of appearing in English thanks to translator T Jefferson Kline and Pushkin Press. Set in the 16th century, it tells the story of that period through the experiences of the de Siorac family and through the eyes of the second son, Pierre. Merle describes its construction in a brief introduction:
“It is a concentric tale, whose first circle is the family, second circle a province and third a kingdom, whose princes receive no more attention than is necessary to understand the happiness and unhappiness of those who, far away in their baronial courts, depended on their decisions.”
My limited knowledge of historical fiction makes it difficult for me to name an English language equivalent, but The Brethren neither seeks to recreate the world of the powerful as Wolf Hall does, nor use history as a backdrop to a different kind of story as in The Name of the Rose. Instead there is a clear intention to demonstrate the historical events of the time as they affect characters who are neither at their centre or entirely removed from them.
The de Siorac family are a Protestant family at a time of great religious division in France and much of the novel focuses on the tensions that arise as, first one faction, then the other, achieves temporary superiority. Pierre’s father, Jean, and his brother in arms and namesake Jean de Sauveterre are ex-soldiers who together buy the chateau Mespech with the intention of making a life for themselves after their service in the army:
“Between these two were woven, out of the hazards of battle, and their many brushes with death from which each had saved the other, the ties of an affection so deep that neither time, misfortune, nor even my father’s marriage could damage it in the slightest.”
The above quotation also gives a sense of the voice of the novel which seeks to echo an older rhythms of English without containing too many archaic terms. This can seem a little slow at times, particularly initially when Pierre is recounting events that took place before he was born. However the original novel was written in the French of the period (described on Wikipedia as ‘virtually untranslatable’) so it would have been a betrayal of the source to translate into an entirely contemporary English.
For lovers of historical fiction, the novel is rich with detail and contains some wonderful scenes demonstrating the dangers of the time, such as when the chateau is attacked by gypsies or when order collapses in the local town as the plague takes hold (an early version of The Walking Dead). Most dangerous of all is the two Jeans’ Protestant religion (not shared by Siorac’s wife or by their servants) which they initially keep hidden – a decision as to whether to make it public is one of life and death.
A lighter strand is provided by de Siorac’s inability to control his lust (much disapproved of by de Sauveterre) giving Pierre a half-brother, Samson. Pierre seems to be following in his father’s footsteps given his nightly adventures with the servant’s daughter Helix. Although there a number of strong and sympathetic female characters, it has to be said they can veer towards cliché at times and it is the men who are the clear heroes of the story. (Of course, this may change in later volumes).
The Brethren is a very pleasurable way to learn about 16th century France. Its style means it lacks the impact of Wolf Hall and it is certainly not as knowing as The Name of the Rose, but for those who enjoy historical novels I suspect they will want to follow Pierre on his journey as he leaves Mespech in the final pages.