Marjorie Bowen was a new discovery for me towards the end of last year. Born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell, she wrote more than one hundred and fifty books under several pseudonyms, covering a variety of genres from historical fiction and romance to supernatural horror, crime fiction and biography. Having enjoyed Dickon, her fictional account of the life of Richard III, I decided not to wait too long to try another of her books.
The Viper of Milan, originally published in 1906, was Bowen’s first novel and a favourite book of the author Graham Greene. This reissue by Endeavour Press includes an introduction by Greene (I recommend reading it at the end to avoid spoilers) in which he explains how Bowen influenced his own early attempts at writing. The Viper of Milan, he says, taught him that human nature is “not black and white but black and grey”.
The novel is set in Lombardy in the middle of the 14th century and follows a battle for power between Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona. As the story opens, in 1360, Visconti is busy expanding his territories and forging alliances; he has forced della Scala out of Verona and taken his wife, Isotta d’Este of Ferrara, as a hostage. It seems that nobody can stop Visconti in his relentless conquest of northern Italy – nobody apart from della Scala, who vows to regain his lost lands and release Isotta from captivity.
Meanwhile, Visconti’s sister Valentine has problems of her own: her brother has arranged a marriage for her with the Duke of Orleans, while the man she really loves has been imprisoned in a deserted villa outside the city and is slowly starving to death. Another young lady, Graziosa, who lives with her artist father by the western gate of Milan, is also in love – but is her lover really as he seems?
As you can probably tell from my summary of the plot, The Viper of Milan is a dark tale of treachery, trickery and betrayal. I was amazed to learn that Marjorie Bowen was only sixteen years old when she wrote it. Apparently it was rejected by several publishers who considered it an inappropriate novel for such a young woman to have written. What interests me more than the darkness of the story, though, is – as Graham Greene said – Bowen’s view of the ambiguities of human nature. The Duke of Milan, a clever, patient and shrewd man, is also a cruel and brutal one, ruling through fear and violence. In contrast, the Duke of Verona is honest, honourable and trusting, inspiring respect and admiration in those who follow him. It’s only when he discovers that doing the right thing doesn’t always pay that he begins to wonder whether it’s worth continuing to stick to his morals.
After reading Dickon, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from Bowen’s writing, but I found The Viper of Milan to be very different in style and tone. The archaic language which felt slightly unnatural in Dickon suited this book perfectly, with its more melodramatic and gothic feel. This is an ideal read for people who, like myself, enjoy reading authors like Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini (in fact, Sabatini’s Bellarion is a very similar novel, set in the same part of Italy at about the same time).
If you do choose to read this book, I should warn you that the historical background to the story is not particularly accurate. Some of the characters have the names of real historical figures, but the plot is fictional and many of the things that happen have no basis in history. Having said that, the novel does capture perfectly the atmosphere of early Renaissance Italy with its warring city states and is a wonderfully entertaining story in its own right. There are some beautifully written descriptions of the Lombardy region too. If this sounds like your sort of book, then I would highly recommend The Viper of Milan. If not, Marjorie Bowen does seem to have been a very versatile author, so maybe one of her other books would be of more interest. I will be reading more of them, so I’ll let you know what I discover!