Lots of people (including myself) hate Hollywood’s attempts at portraying history. They are terribly clumsy at portraying historical settings, their research is laughable, and they tend to shoehorn peculiarly modern dynamics into their stories. All of those reasons are perfectly adequate for us haters, of course, but I would like to submit another. Namely, the real stories from history are often far more gripping and fascinating than whatever cliched and hackneyed plot line the screenwriters manage to cobble together.
There are many times that I read some forgotten historical anecdote and think to myself, “Wow! This would be an amazing movie!” The story of Marguerite de la Rocque is one of those stories – in the hands of a capable screenwriter, it could be like Titanic and The Revenant combined.
The story begins with the failed French attempt to colonize Canada in 1541-3. The commander of the expedition was a Huguenot noble by the name of Jean Francois de La Rocque de Roberval. Roberval was from an old and prestigious family, and he had been on the inside of the royal court for just about all his life. What’s more, he had been very close with King Francis I of France in his youth, when he was still merely Prince Francis. And even more importantly, King Francis’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, was a Protestant who extended her protection to several notable Protestants, among whom Roberval was counted.
In any event, one of Roberval’s noble relatives – we don’t know exactly how she was related but it was certainly pretty close – was a lady by the name of Marguerite de la Rocque. For some unknown reason, she accompanied Roberval on his voyage to the new world, along with her elderly nurse, a peasant woman by the name of Damienne. Unbeknownst to Roberval, however, the two of them were hiding another person as well – an unnamed young lover of Marguerite’s.
But there is only so much you can hide on a cramped ship, and eventually the pair was discovered by the furious Roberval – possibly because Marguerite became pregnant. Stern Calvinist that he was, Roberval could not and would not let his kinswoman get away with such ungodly behavior. Despite their pleas for mercy, Marguerite and Damienne were both sent ashore to a desolate island called the Isle of Demons, where it was said that the demons wandered freely and killed any sailor who got too close. Roberval gave his relative and her nurse a few provisions, some guns, and a bit of ammunition, but that was all. They were on their own now, and may God have mercy on their souls.
Marguerite’s lover was placed in confinement aboard the ship. Roberval wasn’t going to put the man ashore so that the pair could continue their life of sin. Instead, the young man was to be put in chains, separated from his love, and brought to the new colony to be punished appropriately for his sullying of the good name of the de la Rocques.
One can easily imagine the scene as Roberval’s ships sailed away. Young Marguerite stands watching on the shore, weeping for the lover she would never see again. No doubt she pines for just one more look, one more kiss, one more moment with her beloved, who is now being carried away from her in chains. But wait! Through her tears she sees some splashing out in the surf – it is her gallant lover, who, unwilling to let his woman die alone and abandoned, has managed to escape and jump overboard! As he wades ashore, she can see that he brought two more guns and some provisions. The two tearfully reunite, with the old nurse looking on. The pair are at peace – perhaps they will die here, but at least they will die together.
For the remainder of the summer and autumn the lovers lived an idyllic life together. The gentleman built a crude cabin, chopped firewood, fished, hunted, and spent the rest of his time with Marguerite in his arms. Winter soon came, however with all its attendant privations and extremities. When their food ran out, the three castaways subsisted on roots and herbs and brackish water. However, in the words of the Queen of Navarre – and yes, we’ll explain later what she had to do with all this – “In the long run, the husband could not resist the effects of such diet; besides, they drank such unwholesome water that he became greatly swollen, and died in a short while, having no other service or consolation than his woman’s, who acted as his physician and his confessor; so that he passed with joy from his desert to the heavenly land.”
The poor Marguerite did what she could for her gallant lover and tried to bury his body after he was gone. However, the ground was frozen too solid, and so she had to leave his corpse in her cabin until the spring thaw, using her gun to protect her lover’s body from the wild beasts which roamed outside. When spring came, Marguerite and her elderly nurse, who had been growing ever weaker, managed to dig a grave as deep as they were able to, and there lay her lover to eternal rest.
Over the course of that spring Marguerite gave birth to a child, the fruit of her dalliance with her late lover. However, the child, lacking subsistence and shelter, soon died, leaving Marguerite with nothing but memories of her beloved. When the next winter arrived, Damienne the old nurse also died, leaving Marguerite completely on her own. Throughout the winter, as Marguerite huddled in her shelter, at times fighting off bears “as white as an egg”, the shrieking winds and storms howled outside, with a dreadful sound she could only imagine was the din of the forces of the underworld.
When spring 1544 came along, poor Marguerite was more dead than alive. Famished, exhausted, and emaciated, she dragged herself out of her cabin, subsisting on no more than an iron will to survive, to keep on going. Fortunately for her, a passing French fishing ship saw the smoke rising from her fire and sent a party ashore. The fishermen discovered Marguerite huddling in her tattered rags and offered her passage back to France.
When Marguerite returned to France, she became an instant celebrity. Her story combined both romance and survival – probably the two most popular storytelling genres. Her story was a whopper, and shortly after her return, she was paid a visit by Jean Alphonse, the pilot of the ship she had been marooned from. She related her entire story to Alphonse, who in turn told it to Marguerite, Queen of Navarre. The Queen of Navarre loved the story so much that she included it in her Heptameron, which was an extremely popular collection of short stories she had authored. Of course, Marguerite changed a few details around to make sure the story didn’t offend anyone and gave it a religious veneer, but Marguerite de la Rocque’s story is recounted in the Heptameron, Novella 67.
Another writer who recorded Marguerite’s story more accurately was Andre Thevet, the historian, who also heard the story directly from Marguerite’s own mouth. Through these two writers, Marguerite’s story has survived, and like I’ve said, what a story it is. They really should make a movie about it.