Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Constant: 1. not changing or varying. 2. regularly recurrent. 3. steadfast or resolute. 4. something that does not change or vary. 5. Queen Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain and 1st wife of King Henry of England, even though he dumps her in a far away castle, takes away her title, tries to divorce her, disinherits their daughter, and then marries in secret that scheming tease Anne Boleyn.

Ah, but that’s only how the story ends. You’ll have to read The Other Boleyn Girl to learn of that version. To learn how that song goes, “Every new beginning starts with some other beginnings end,” in this case the end of Queen Katherine of Aragon’s beginning.

So The Constant Princess tells her story, and it starts with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and their war against the Moors. A child of the battle field and by the age of three, the future Princess of Wales and daughter of these two great monarchs, Catalina, is already betrothed to King Henry the Seventh’s (and newly self-anointed King of England) firstborn son Arthur as part of a peace treaty with Spain.

We all know what happens, that Arthur dies right after their teenage marriage, and that she waits seven long years in England to marry his younger brother, Henry, when he is seventeen and she is twenty-three. But what is not generally known is what happens in between these years. Was her marriage to Arthur really not consummated? How was she able to cope with his loss, and seven long years alone in a foreign country, friendless, and unable to speak the language? Can you imagine what it must’ve been like for her? Philippa Gregory does a pretty good job of filling in the blanks with the believable details that we, who are interested in English history, are often wondering about.

For the most part, I liked this book. To write about one of history’s most inspiring women was a daunting task, and I feel Gregory did her homework here. I enjoyed learning more of early Spain and its Arab influences. This is one thing she does well as an author; she makes history readable and interesting, and most of all personal. My only complaint would be the sizable gap she leaves at the end between when Katherine’s first son dies and the Papal Legat hearing twenty years later. It felt too rushed to me, like she was in a hurry to finish the book.

I’ve always wondered why Henry the Eighth was how he was with women, and where his great desire for power and vindication came from. Gregory explores it very little here, but I guess the story wasn’t really about him; it was about his long-suffering first wife. But still, now I have more questions than ever about how a man, who knew and loved this woman almost his entire life, from the age of eleven on, and for twenty years they ruled England together, yet at the drop of a crown-shaped hat he leaves her stranded for another woman, all because she wouldn’t give him a son? Was King Henry really that shallow? Perhaps he was. Men, ugh…3.5 stars


The Bradfords said...

I'm only two-thirds of the way through this book, but I am amazed at the sympathy I feel for Catalina. (If she were born in modern times she would have retained that name--I prefer it for her). I wish she could return to Spain and eat fresh fruit and vegetables and have spring water to drink. I never realized how dreary England was compared to other places. As with all Phillippa Gregory books, I know what's coming and as I read I'm on pins and needles as to when it will happen.

I've often wondered those same things about Henry VIII. As of late I've started to think that Anne Boelyn was a real demon. But I also think that Henry was a product of his time and truly didn't believe that women were just as capable of men. I'd definitely like to read more about that topic.

Bryce and Mandy said...

Sounds like a good book. I am fascinated by all the twists and turns that English history takes.

TheBlackSheep said...

Interesting. I don't ever think I've heard of history through Catherine's perspective. It's always about Henry or Anne.

I personally think Henry was a little spoiled and then a little crazed. I get the feeling that he might have really believed a lot of his wilder accusations, goaded on by that need for a son. It's too bad his craziness had to make everyone else miserable too.