Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Night's Dark Shade

I was delighted to read Elena Maria Vidal's latest novel, The Night's Dark Shade (2009). Like her earlier works, Trianon and Madame Royale, it is beautiful yet harrowing, vividly transporting the reader to other times and places and illustrating the dire religious, political and personal conflicts of the past while inspiring faith, hope and charity. In this case, we come face to face with the ravages of the Cathar heresy and the tragic and controversial Albigensian Crusade in 13th century southern France. Within this traumatic setting, beset with physical, moral and spiritual perils, Vidal sets forth the adventures of a lovely young noblewoman, the Vicomtesse Raphaelle de Miramande.

In Vidal's earlier novels, the protagonists were real people, and the plots closely followed historical events. In this book, the characters and their adventures are fictional, although inspired by the author's careful research and deep knowledge of the period in question. They spring from Vidal's rich imagination, spirituality and life experience. She weaves an intricate love story, in the highest sense of the term; not only a tale of romance and marriage but a portrayal of an earnest soul's purification in the love of God and man through joy and sorrow, suffering and triumph.

Raphaelle is an endearing heroine; tender, innocent, clever, brave and pious. She also has a deep capacity for passion and devotion which proves to be a dangerous blessing, nearly leading her to sacrifice her virtue for a forbidden love, yet ultimately enabling her to rise to remarkable heights of spiritual heroism in the face of cruelty, calumny, hatred and persecution.

After her father and her betrothed have been killed fighting in the Albigensian Crusade, the orphaned, vulnerable young heiress is obliged to leave her native Auvergne and travel to her uncle's castle in the Pyrenees to marry her cousin, Raymond. As if the loss of her loved ones and her home, and the perilous journey towards the unknown were not hard enough, the devout Catholic maiden soon discovers, to her horror, that her uncle's castle is a Cathar stronghold, ruled by her aunt, Lady Esclarmonde, a fanatical Cathar leader. The mysterious, sinister sect pours scorn upon all Raphaelle's most sacred religious and moral beliefs. Meanwhile, she is appalled by the poisoned fruits of Catharism. All in the name of the loftiest ideals, lust runs rampant, babies are murdered in the womb, the sick are starved to death....Does any of this sound familiar?

A harrowing series of adventures ensues, as Raphaelle struggles to break free of her betrothal to Raymond, himself a virulent Cathar. In a frightening betrayal of innocence and trust, those who ought to be Raphaelle's friends and protectors prove to be her deadliest foes. Her cold, ruthless aunt will stop at nothing to win her over to her purposes; when persuasion and imprisonment fail, she resorts to torture. Raphaelle also has to contend with Raymond's malice and violence, while her uncle, a weak Catholic, fails in his duty to defend her.

Raphaelle's traumatic experiences challenge, but ultimately strengthen, her religious faith. Through many trials, temptations and surprises, and some human failings, she matures into a worthy mother of a new family, and a worthy mother of her people, helping to heal a society shattered by heresy and warfare.


elena maria vidal said...

Thank you so much for the beautifully written review!

Marie-Jacqueline said...

Matterhorn, I was wondering: Does the novel talk about St. Dominic's efforts to defeat the Albigensian heresy and the small community of ex-Cathar women he established that was the origin of the Dominican Sisters?

May said...

Oh's been some time now since I read it, and I don't have a copy on hand anymore to check (I had to borrow it from the library). St. Dominic might be mentioned, but I don't recall hearing about the community of ex-Cathar women. Thank you for that additional information!

Marie-Jacqueline said...

Thank you, Matterhorn. I heard about the community in a lecture by the late Michael Davies. It's the convent at Prouille that is mentioned in both the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wiki articles on St. Dominic. When I heard about it I thought it had literary potential so I wondered if it had been included in this novel.

By the way, I think it's great you make such good use of libraries. It's easy to become lax about that when the internet is so close at hand!