Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reviews From an HBN (The Constant Princess - Philippa Gregory)

I seem to be in a bit of a Tudor-ish mood lately...

"I am Catalina, Princess of Spain, daughter of the two greatest monarchs the world has ever known...and I will be Queen of England."

Thus, bestselling author Philippa Gregory introduces one of her most unforgettable heroines: Katherine of Aragon. Daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Katherine has been fated her whole life to marry Prince Arthur of England. When they meet and are married, the match becomes as passionate as it is politically expedient. The young lovers revel in each other's company and plan the England they will make together. But tragically, aged only fifteen, Arthur falls ill and extracts from his sixteen-year-old bride a deathbed promise to marry his brother, Henry; become Queen; and fulfill their dreams and her destiny.

"They tell me nothing but lies here and they think they can break my spirit. I believe what I choose and say nothing. I am not as simple as I seem."

Widowed and alone in the avaricious world of the Tudor court, Katherine has to sidestep her father-in-law's desire for her and convince him, and an incredulous Europe, that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, that there is no obstacle to marriage with Henry. For seven years, she endures the treachery of spies, the humiliation of poverty, and intense loneliness and despair while she waits for the inevitable moment when she will step into the role she has prepared for all her life. Then, like her warrior mother, Katherine must take to the battlefield and save England when its old enemies the Scots come over the border and there is no one to stand against them but the new Queen.

"It was my dying husband's hope, my mother's wish, and God's will that I should be Queen of England; and for them and for the country, I will be Queen of England until I die."

Raised on the battlefield and in the most beautiful Moorish palace in the world, sent to England alone at the age of sixteen to take her place in a court where she couldn't speak the language, and abandoned and forced to endure poverty after the death of her husband, Katherine remained a woman of indomitable spirit, unwavering faith, and extraordinary strength. Philippa Gregory brings to life one of history's most inspiring women and creates one of the most compelling characters in historical fiction.

Whew, what a summary! Is there even any room for my review in all of that?


My knowledge of Katherine of Aragon is limited to five facts: 1) she was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, king and queen of Spain, 2) she was first married to Arthur Tudor, Henry VIII's older brother, 3) she was Henry's first wife, 4) she was a devout Catholic, 5) she was Princess Mary's mother. For all I know, her life story is as Philippa Gregory wrote it, but after the misinformation of The Other Boleyn Girl, I highly doubt it.

Yet it bears repeating that Ms. Gregory is a good storyteller, in the sense that she made me finish reading what might as well be a novelized soap opera. My liking for Katherine carried over from TOBG and grew as she was portrayed with greater detail. She transformed from an obedient daughter to an independent, if troubled widow, and from there into a victorious queen. I grew so attached to the love story with Arthur that it fairly broke my heart when it ended, and my initial ambivalence towards Henry was cemented once again into dislike. Arrogant, selfish, demanding, and with the power to have you put to death if you annoyed him--yikes!

But back to Katherine, or Catalina, as she's called here. Her initial motive was to fulfill her destiny to please her parents, and that made for a dull start (one of the books problems, but I liked it as a whole, anyway). Her love and passion for Arthur, once it took off, got me caught up in no time, hopeless romantic that I am. It was her vow to become Queen of England no matter what that set things rolling. Was it really her determination to keep her promise that drove her, or did the promise just give her an excuse for her ambition? Did her pledge to Arthur really inspire her to cast him off and publicly denounce him, or was she serving her own purposes? And even after denying they were ever truly husband and wife, she still loved him heart and soul, and remained constant to him even as she was married to Henry. See? See what I did there?

No, really, "constant" could refer to many things about Catalina. Constant determination, patience, perseverance, deception, pride, and constant devotion to her dead husband and lover. The next time I read TOBG, my view of Queen Katherine will have changed quite a bit...

About the shifts from third to first person--I didn't mind in the slightest. The reader has the omnipresence to see what's going on everywhere else in the story, and the intimate, personal account of the heroine herself. I'm partial to alternating POV, myself, so I was already slanted in Ms. Gregory's favor on that part. I would have liked to split the time mostly between Catalina's marriages without the long portion focusing on her widowhood, as that's when things lost a lot of steam, but other than that, I enjoyed this more than TOBG. *gasp* I really did.

The closing with Katherine ready to defend her marriage to Henry with her--paraphrasing here--having the courage to lie again knowing he would never be brave enough to tell the truth, and fighting for her daughter's rights as a legitimate princess, her queenship, and (truly, this time) the promise she made Arthur...brava. Highest point of the whole book, seeing she was all but defeated and yet anything but. My favorite scene by far, and that, if nothing else, makes this one worth it.

In closing: historical inaccuracies likely, reminiscent of daytime TV, less opulent than TOBG but with more...spirit, shall I say? This one has less grandeur, but more of something else that I can't quite put my finger on. Either way, I liked it, plain and simple, flaws and all.


Your humble book nerd,

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