Mary Novik had wanted to write a novel for years, but resisted until a solid premise revealed itself. In 1997, already fascinated by the courtesans of European history, she was touring the 14th-century Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, when the frescoes of Pope Clement VI’s bedchamber offered further inspiration.
“When those things looked like they might provide a context for a story,” she says, “I just went for it.”
Seated on a downtown patio with the Straight, Novik recalls this moment while discussing the concepts behind her sophomore effort, the new historical novel Muse. Beyond romance and intrigue, the plot follows Solange Le Blanc, a clairvoyant scribe in 14th-century Avignon, as she graduates from orphan to muse and confidante, as the lover of both the famed Italian poet Petrarch and Pope Clement VI.
Written over six years, the book was started prior to 2007’s Conceit, the Vancouver author’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize–winning debut that chronicled the Elizabethan poet and cleric John Donne and his family. “There was a lot of time for me to notice things,” she says, “and get excited about other things and bring them in.”
Discovering Petrarch had fathered two illegitimate children, Novik was compelled to imagine who their anonymous mother was and employed this heroine “as a way of showing a lot of things about Avignon at that time in a more personal way”.
Unlike many women of that era, Solange receives a good education, a benefit of being raised in a Benedictine abbey, and her aptitude as a scribe eventually introduces her to Petrarch. Nevertheless, it is her prophetic visions that draw Clement VI’s attention, granting her entrance to the Palais des Papes.
Researching Muse involved trips to Avignon, where she studied medieval maps in the city archives, and expeditions to Paris that included stops at the Louvre and the Musée de Cluny. “I don’t feel any necessity to be completely faithful to facts. But, by the same token, I don’t ever fly in the face of known historical facts,” she says. “I’m seeking verisimilitude. But I’m not throwing up barriers between the reader and the book.”
Embroidered throughout Muse are motifs of truth and tribute, fortune and deceit; despite artistic guidance, Solange learns that Petrarch has no intention of marrying her, especially as his renown for ardent compositions grows. Secretly becoming pregnant with the poet’s second child, she remains harboured in the Palais des Papes, and trades the secular world’s sexism for Clement VI’s embrace.
“How had it come to pass that my life was no longer my own, but the property of such men?” Solange wonders, suddenly under public suspicion as the plague encroaches on Avignon. “Those who had worshipped me as the miraculous bell-ringer on the tower, their own Saint Barbara who could drive off thunder and eclipses, were on the point of turning me into a martyr themselves.”
Though the oppression of women is a constant theme in Novik’s novels, the author states that this is dictated more by the epochs in which her stories are set than any political agenda. “I was very curious and interested in the role that women played,” she says. “Solange breaks out of the mould in various things that happen in her life. And yet, in other ways of looking at her, she actually plays almost all the roles that were available to women at that time.”
Hildegard van Bingen, a Christian mystic during the Middle Ages, also served as a template for the cunning protagonist. According to the author, Muse can be read as either hagiography or earthly adventure, and “that sense of interplay and irony” additionally fuelled her writing.
As Solange and Petrarch drift apart, the perimeters of lust and exaltation emerge. Here, the author illuminates the charged relationship between creator and conduit, contemplating the flaws concealed by legend.
Petrarch “was probably quite liberal for the time,” Novik remarks, acknowledging that the novel’s first-person perspective presented certain limitations. “To show another character, you can only show them through Solange’s point of view,” she says. “I was actually quite sympathetic with him [Petrarch]—but people look at him and think he was being unfair.”
A sublime stylist, Novik is distinguished by a regal narrative timbre suffused with wit. Before pursuing fiction, Novik attempted verse and admits the results were ill-fated. “I don’t think it was that good,” she says, laughing. “I’m pretty sure it was awful.”
Abandoning poetry for prose, however, has yielded greater success. After a career teaching literature at Langara, Novik now concentrates on her work as a novelist. “I only started writing fiction when I was about 50,” she says. “I came to it kind of late, but I’ve really been enjoying it.”