Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

The Constant Princess (The Tudor Court #1)
By: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Touchstone
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7249-0


The youngest daughter of two of the most famous monarchs in Spanish history, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, Catalina, the Infanta of Spain, knew her destiny from the time she was three years old. Betrothed to Arthur, the Prince of Wales and Tudor heir, Catalina was destined to become the Princess of Wales and then Queen of England, carrying her mother's passion to defend the faith of the Roman Church to England's shores, securing a critical alliance and cementing a lasting peace between Spain and the newly-installed Tudor king, Henry VII. Though she has prepared her entire life to be God's anointed queen in England, Catalina finds herself ill-prepared for the emotional and physical adjustments her new life requires. Though she finds her intended attractive and harbors hopes for an affectionate union, those girlish dreams are soon dashed by the political machinations of the English court that put such pressure on her marital relations the young couple become even further estranged with little impetus to overcome their personal and cultural differences.

But Catalina perseveres, and falls deeply in love with Arthur, who proves to be a dedicated prince and a promising ruler. The future the young princess was raised to believe her birthright seems secure, and the un-imagined gift of passion she feels for her young husband is a blessing that surely signals their union and marriage are highly favored -- until disaster strikes, and in the damp and cold Welsh climate Arthur falls ill and dies, but not before exacting a promise from Catalina that will change the course of her life forever. Demanding that she claim their five-month marriage was unconsummated in order to marry his younger brother Henry, and in so doing fulfill her destiny to be queen, and in so doing assume a position of power and responsibility that will allow her to fulfill their shared dreams for Arthur's rule. Devastated by her loss but determined to keep her word, Catalina embarks on a game of intrigue and danger that will cost her far more than she'd ever dreamed -- for to keep her promise she must find the strength within her to withstand the power plays and political machinations within and without her household that would seek to see her denied her birthright. But the girl who arrived on English shores an innocent will not be denied, and Catalina, daughter of kings, fights to achieve her destiny as queen of England and in so doing her constancy and passion leave an indelible mark on the pages of history.

After revisiting several Tudor-era films (among them Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) I found myself wanting to explore more Tudor-set fiction, and so decided to try my first novel by the prolific Philippa Gregory. Katherine, the wife whom Henry VIII abandoned after over twenty years of marriage has always held a special fascination for me. She not only one of the wives to have survived Henry's mercurial temperament when it comes to women, but she never ceased fighting for her place, her rights, or denying Henry's right to have their marriage invalidated, a sacred promise she believed in and respected in spite of Henry's betrayal. While her life has always been marked by faithfulness and constancy in my mind, I have always tended to picture her as the middle-aged matron, failing to ever imagine her in the first bloom of youth, and how that vibrancy and the years she endured as a young widow must have marked her and informed her later decisions and beliefs.

Following Arthur's death, following the generally accepted historical record Catalina vowed she was a virgin, and therefore provided a dispensation from the pope was provided, as such was therefore able to marry her one-time brother-in-law Henry, when he reached his majority. Gregory, however, takes this one step further, by asserting that Catalina lied -- that her marriage to Arthur was in fact a marriage in word and deed, and the lie was therefore necessary to maintain her position as queen-to-be. Frankly, I've always thought it a little unlikely that her first marriage wasn't consummated, so I had no issue with this scenario -- nor does it, in my mind, invalidate Katherine's famously devout nature. At this point in her life, little more than a child, in danger of losing everything she was raised to be -- her very identity -- one can imagine that such a falsehood might be viewed as a matter of survival. Given how Henry treats Katherine after twenty-plus years of marriage -- setting aside the all important issue of the lack of a male heir -- I loved Gregory's idea that, once upon a time, a vibrant, loving marriage was within Catalina's reach. And if keeping a deathbed promise to her beloved Arthur meant securing a marriage with Henry at any cost -- it's a lie I can imagine was not spoken lightly or without great personal cost.

Gregory divides the novel between third-person narrative and first-person, italicized "diary entries" told from Catalina's perspective. The balance between third- and first-person point-of-view works less well than one could have wished -- I think Gregory would've been better served to stick with a third-person account of Catalina's life, as more often than not the italicized entries recap action already covered or are frankly too long for the italicized format. Whether or not you like Gregory's take on Catalina's early life, she's produced a highly readable, entertaining account of Catalina's first years in England. Gregory's succeeded in crafting a narrative that is evocative of the time period and a highly sympathetic portrait of a princess who, time and again, refused to be bowed by circumstance. Sure to provoke further interest in the time period and its heroine, The Constant Princess has dramatically increased my respect and admiration for a woman whose faith and constancy in the face of her marriage's dissolution is arguably the result of a lifetime of determination and dedication to her faith and principles.

About the book:

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

Bestselling author Philippa Gregory introduces us to one of her most unforgettable heroines: Katherine of Aragon. Known to history as the queen who was pushed off her throne by Anne Boleyn, here is a Katherine the world has forgotten: the enchanting princess that all England loved. First married to Henry VIII's older brother, Arthur, Katherine's passion turns their arranged marriage into a love match. But when Arthur dies, the merciless English court and her ambitious parents -- the crusading King and Queen of Spain -- have to find a new role for the widow. Ultimately, it is Katherine herself who takes control of her own life by telling the most audacious lie in English history, leading her to the very pinnacle of power in England.

Set in the rich beauty of Moorish Spain and the glamour of the Tudor court, The Constant Princess presents a woman whose constancy helps her endure betrayal, poverty, and despair, until the inevitable moment when she steps into the role she has rehearsed all her life: Henry VIII's Queen, Regent, and commander of the English army in their greatest victory against Scotland.


Debra E. Marvin said...

I heard this as an audio book and it might be one of my favorites of her stories. I became fascinated with the Alhambra and Spain's royalty. Someone I'd missed the fascinating woman behind the first wife!

thanks Ruth!

Kaye Dacus said...

The third book in this series, THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE, is my favorite Gregory book. The audio book version is one of the best I've ever listened to. And it cemented Anne of Cleves as my favorite Tudor wife.