Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #18: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory
The Constant Princess gives us Catherine of Aragon, Infanta of Spain since birth and Princess of Wales since the age of three, as a child, a girl, a bride and a young wife of two princes, an interesting perspective on a woman we are often encouraged to view as an old and tired saint or harridan, villain or victim in the Anne Boleyn saga. At the opening of the novel, Catherine’s parents Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile are fighting the Moors in Spain, driven by religious fervour and the desire to unite Spain and extend their own lands. In the first chapters, Catherine grows up partly in army camps and partly in the fabled Alhambra palace, and she is given an appreciation of Moorish heritage and a gradual tentative near-tolerance of Islam despite her mother’s Inquisition and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. Catherine is also aware of her “destiny” (a word she uses a lot) in England, where she travels at the age of 16 to marry Prince Arthur, eldest and ill-fated son of Henry VII. She is walked down the aisle by Arthur’s spoiled younger brother Henry, who marries her after Arthur’s untimely death.
The whole plot of the novel hinges on three things: Catherine’s “constancy,” her sense of destiny, and the lie she tells to ensure it’s fulfilled. By this I mean that she is defined by her loyalty (to her own sense of right) as well as her capacity for patient waiting, her love for her first husband, and the dangerous lie she tells to make sure that their ideals for a nation with greater justice and liberty survive and are carried out in England. I consulted a historian friend of mine about these things and though they make for a decent yarn, they skate across pretty thin historical ice. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed the book, and it was decent escapism both in the “immerse self in a different century” sense and in the “discuss what’s wrong with it over a pint” sense.
Despite its somewhat unusual focus on Catherine’s early years, the plot is made up of pretty standard and familiar elements – the cut-throat high-stakes court politics, the need for an heir to the throne and the fragility of life in the Renaissance, in which even the glamorous existence of the court is threatened by plague and sickness and simple bad hygiene and diet. Catherine seems to be steely since birth, much as Henry is spoiled; their marriage inevitably means conflict rather than compromise. It’s readable (not the same as brilliantly-written) book and has a few touching moments, particularly when Catherine is allowed to be a sixteen year old girl missing her mother rather than a vessel of righteousness and destiny.
It’s hard to know exactly when the narration is supposed to be happening as there are quite annoying bits of italicised first person narrative that basically repeats what we’ve already been told or can infer from the third person narrative – I feel that the book would be stronger if the author had decided on one mode of story-telling. It also seems like the story cuts away from important scenes quite a bit – we’re given the build-up and the aftermath but not the event or conversation itself. All in all, Gregory seems very aware that we might think Catherine less exciting than her successor for whom Henry shattered the traditions of centuries, so rather than focus on Catherine’s accomplishments there’s a lot of manufactured-seeming drama, sexuality and foreshadowing. These all seem somewhat awkwardly jarring, such as when Henry VII experiences a “thud-thud” of lust when gazing upon his daughter-in-law-to-be or when Catherine is told of the birth of “Anne or Mary Boleyn.”
No quote because I don’t have the book anymore. I had the edition with only half of Catherine’s head visible- I’m quite pleased that book covers for showing a woman only from the chin down seems to be going out of fashion.