Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Philippa Gregory and Catherine of Aragon

Being sick has one advantage. . . you can catch up on some of your reading. Philippa Gregory is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction.

To my great shame, I have a very difficult time reading history. Unless it is vigorously written, it puts me to sleep. It is particularly embarassing when my husband has a degree in History, and his eyes light up discussing battles and strategems and who said what to whom and why it matters. It has to do with my hard-wiring, it’s not even a gender thing.

So I gravitate toward historical fiction; give me people and motivations and interactions any day, and I can remember it. Sometimes, I even learn something. Philippa Gregory never lets me down. She researches, she documents, and she might speculate, but you always have a clear idea what is real (historically documented) and what is a good story, putting meat on the bones of the history.

Out of sequence, I read The Queen’s Fool and The Other Boleyn Girl. Each of these books is peripheral to the story of Catherine of Aragon. The first features a woman chosen to be a Fool at the court of Queen Mary, Catherine’s daughter. She is of Jewish descent, hiding as a Christian, escaped from the fires of the Spanish Inquisition. She lives in fear of being caught out in her deception. With her father, a printer, she tries to secrete and maintain many of the books of Moorish Spain, the knowledge of the ancients, which the church begins to declare heretical in England. The second book, The Other Boleyn Girl, is about Anne Boleyn, but told from the perspective of her sister, Lady Mary, who was also mistress to Henry, King of England, while he was married to Catherine of Aragon. The Boleyn girls are portrayed as mere pawns in the great game of power in the English court.

So this newest book, The Constant Princess, opens in Spain, as Queen Isabella of Castile, Catherine’s mother, and King Ferdinand of Aragon fight to eliminate the Moors and to unite their lands into one Kingdom. The little girl, whose mother is the chief strategist and who fights in armor alongside her husband, learns battlefield tactics at her parent’s feet and in their camps and learns diplomatic skills in their throne rooms.

We follow Catherine to England, married first to Arthur, then after Arthur’s death, to Henry. She assures them her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, that Arthur was too young, and impotent. Gregory assumes this was a lie. We don’t know. I would guess that it was one of those lies that nobody believes but was convenient to all to pretend to believe, for money, for power, for alliances.

We stand with Catherine as she sends Henry off to fight the French, then leads her own troops up to vanquish the Scots. We agonize with her as she strives to become pregnant, to carry an heir to the throne full term to birth, and as she loses a seemingly perfect baby boy to infant death. We sit with her in stragegic councils, watch her balance the budgets for court and state, and scheme to protect the English borders against all threats. Whew! Being a Queen of England is hard work!

The book ends with Catherine facing the eccliastical trial as her own husband disputes the validity of her marriage to him and seeks to set her aside for his freedom to marry Anne Boleyn.

I don’t review every book I read, but I was captivated by the cross cultural threads in this book, and by the fact that while we all know the basic facts of the story – Henry divorces Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boeyn – Catherine’s history, her talents, her strengths and victories were news to me. The influence of her upbringing in Moorish Spain and the influence it played on her growing understanding of the world is a golden thread woven throughout the story.

Early in her first marriage, the young princess tells her beloved husband of her childhood in Grenada:

” . . . We walk in their gardens, we bathe in their hammams, we step into their scented leather slippers and we live a life that is more refined and more luxurious than they could dream of in Paris or London or Rome. We live graciously. We live, as we have always aspired to do, like Moors. Our fellow Christians herd goats in the mountains, pray at roadside cairns to the Madonna, are terrified by superstition and lousy with disease, live dirty and die young. We learn from Moslem scholars, we are attended by their doctors, study the stars in the sky which they have named, count with their numbers which start at the magical zero, eat of their sweetest fruits and delight in the waters which run through their aquaeducts. Their architecture pleases us: at every turn of every corner we know that we are living inside beauty. . . . We learn their poetry, we laugh at their games, we delight in their gardens in their fruits, we bathe in the waters that have made flow. We are the victors, but they have taught us how to rule. . . .”

I can hardly wait for a trip to Spain!

November 12, 2006 - Posted by | Books, Cross Cultural, Fiction, Middle East, Political Issues, Relationships, Women's Issues

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