Before the slings and arrows start up, I will say that yes, this is a work of fiction. However, given my previous encounters with the works of Philippa Gregory, I didn't have much hope either of this novel being that good either.
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Gregory's Katherine (or Catalina, as she is known through most of the book) is continually aware that she is the adored, youngest daughter of Spain's Isabella and Ferdinand, and destined for greatness. We first encounter her as a small child, with her parents' armies, watching the conquest of the last outpost of the Moors in Spain, Granada. She learns not to ever show fear, and that absolute faith in God is what is needed for survival. When she arrives in England to become the bride of King Henry VII's son, Arthur, both of those traits will serve her for what awaits ahead. Catalina has a grand marriage, but her young bridegroom is shy, and not quite what she had expected, still she makes the best of it, and falls passionately in love with her Arthur, only to face disgrace and poverty after a short marriage of mere months. A deathbed promise has her tenaciously hanging onto her rank as Arthur's widow, and she stubbornly maintains that she is still a virgin, even though she knows it's a lie, even though that lie will haunt her for the rest of her life, and bring her to disaster.
Unlike most other novels about Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII's six wives, this one doesn't focus on the famous divorce that her husband started so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, but rather explores her childhood and first marriage to Henry's elder brother, Arthur. I found that to be an unusual take, and it was what had interested me to read the novel in the first place, despite my misgivings about Gregory?s rather laissez-faire attitude towards research.
Along the way, we are treated to some florid writing, a world where everyone lies, quite a few inaccuracies (I can't imagine the Spanish court adopting Moorish dress in private), a Katherine of Aragon who was noted for her sincerity, piety and kindness becoming a Machiavellian schemer, a Henry VII who is lusting after his daughter-in-law, and a Henry VIII who is as dense as he is charming. Despite the author's note, and her use of a bibliography, I found this to be a disappointing read. Part of the problem is that I'm familiar with the history of the period, and Gregory's twisting of the facts and that she focuses mostly on the more base emotions is off-putting after a while, and the main twist of the plot -- namely that Katherine's one true love is Arthur -- is ludicrous, given her defense of her marriage later on in life in the face of the divorce and fight that Henry put up. I honestly can't see this woman putting up with twenty years of marriage to a man that she's stringing along and manipulating; somehow, the historical Katherine just doesn't seem to be that conniving. Yes, she was stubborn, and when she felt that she was in the right, it was nearly impossible to budge her, but her devotion and sincere love for her husband is so well documented, to make her out as a scheming, manipulative woman is, well, it's silly.
Other fatal flaws in this also include Henry VII?s attitude towards his wife, Elizabeth of York; here we get to see her as a nobody, and someone that he thinks nothing of, while in history, he was known for his kindness and devotion to her - when she died from childbirth complications from bearing a final child - a daughter, not a son, as Gregory claims - it was said that he mourned her deeply. Oh yes, and that daughter was named Katherine. It was indeed bandied about that he might marry his daughter-in-law, or her widowed sister, Juana, but neither suggestion was ever followed up. Instead, Gregory has him lusting after Catalina, including several assignations involving mutual lust on both sides. Indeed, throughout the book, I found that most of the characters were not that likeable; I could understand a young teenager trying to lie but then to manage to keep the lie going for another thirty years? Doubtful - royalty at the time lived lives that were never private, and I would think that someone, somewhere would have said something.
It's a clumsy novel, and while I don't mind a few tweaks in a historical novel, there are enough facts and plenty of records and stories to trip up the writer when they are tackling such a popular subject as Henry VIII, his wives, or the Tudor period of English history. Gregory has done this with several of her other novels, most especially, The Other Boleyn Girl which takes on Anne Boleyn and her lesser known sister, Mary, and makes a complete hash of the reality. I had the same disappointment with The Queen's Fool where it was Gregory's misconceptions of Judaism and the Marranos that made it a bad read. Yes, I know that authors are expected to take a few liberties when it comes to historical fiction, and I assume that most readers won't care, but when it's touted as being 'accurate' research, I draw the line. Especially when there's enough non-fiction written about the Tudors that nearly any topic about them can be found, and that fairly well documented.
If you haven't read the recent excellent nonfiction works on Henry VIII and his queens by Starkey, Fraser and Weir, you might enjoy this one, but those who have studied the Tudors may find themselves either laughing at this work or flinging it at the wall in disgust.
Other novels by Philippa Gregory set in the reign of Henry VIII:
The Other Boleyn Girl -- Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour
The Boleyn Inheritance -- Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard
This review appears in slightly different form on Amazon.com
The Constant Princess
2005; Simon & Schuster