After reading Julia Gelardi's first book, Born to Rule, about five granddaughters of Queen Victoria, I knew that I was going to be looking out for her next nonfiction work. This time, Gelardi has taken on the stories of three powerful women and three of their daughters who struggled with both their fates and the expectations laid down upon them.
In Triumph's Wake, Gelardi explores the lives and achievements of three of history's more remarkable monarchs -- Isabella of Castile, Maria Theresa of Austria, and Queen Victoria of England. Each of these women would overcome difficulties in their assumption of power, and solidified their power through clever politics, marriages and a shrewd ability to judge character and use whatever they had to. While each woman would have several children, Gelardi focuses on one daughter of each who would struggle with challenges and tragedies that ultimately reviewed the true woman beneath the royal facade.
The first, Isabella of Castile, was born a princess in a small kingdom of the Spanish peninsula. Castile at the time was poorly ruled, and fraught with nearly constant warfare within from contentious clans of noblemen intent on seizing as much power as they possibly could. The neighboring kingdom of Aragon wasn't much better; Isabella would marry the eventual heir to Aragon, a handsome, very intelligent young man named Ferdinand. Together, they were able to unify the two kingdoms, pacify the nobility and then turned their sights to the final phase of the long struggle that was known as the Reconquista. Isabella ruled in her own right as Queen of Castile, developed policy and raised a numerous brood of daughters and one beloved son, as well as one of the darker chapters of history -- the expulsion and forced conversion of Spain's Jews and remaining Moorish population under the Inquisition.
Her daughter, Catherine of Aragon, the youngest child, would prove to be not quite as lucky as her mother. Pretty, just fifteen, well educated and everything a princess could hope to be, she was sent to England to marry Henry VII's eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales. But the marriage was short-lived, and the question would rage on decades later if the marriage was consummated or not in what was the most famous divorce case in history. Henry VII treated Catherine shamefully, trying to wheedle more of the massive dowry out of her parents, and dangling the promise of arranging her marriage to his second son, the future Henry VIII. When Henry VII died, his heir did indeed marry Catherine, and she was Queen of England, and busily set about trying to give him a son.
What I found interesting in this section was how closely Catherine fit the mold of a proper, religious and devoted Spanish queen. And it's clear that she was indeed loved by Henry VIII, at least until his hunger for a male heir overrode his judgment, and he became the bloodthirsty monster of modern legend. Before this, I had read very little about Queen Isabella and what I discovered was rather new for me.
The second section deals with Maria Theresa, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the heiress of the kingdoms of Austria and Hungary and a host of smaller lands. As with Isabella, she faced a host of problems, among them trying to find a husband that would suit and help her rule, and enemies that sought to take her lands from her. She was energetic, working right up to the moment that she gave birth -- she would have sixteen children in all -- and resuming work right afterwards. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to pass on this strict discipline and self-control to her youngest daughter.
That daughter was to be known as Marie Antoinette. Pretty, and adored by her father as his favorite, she had a good mind and was very talented at music and acting, but lacked the willpower to really apply herself. Antoinette found herself at the age of fourteen and a half off to France to marry Louis-Auguste, heir of Louis XV. From far away Austria, her mother kept up a set of hectoring, lecturing letters, criticizing nearly everything that Antoinette did, and like nearly any teenager, Antoinette rebelled -- indulging herself and discovering a talent for losing when gambling and spending to excess. By the time she was Queen, poor Louis XVI lacked the spine to curb her spending, and their inability to give the throne an heir turned public opinion against them. The final blow came when revolution swept France when dissatisfied nobles and an overburdened population finally had enough. Only when her family was imprisoned and Antoinette lost everything, did she finally show some mettle and true courage, but by then, it was all too late.
While I did find the story of Maria Theresa very interesting and revealing, there has been so much written lately in both history and fiction lately about Marie Antoinette that frankly, I was bored to tears at this section. Author Antonia Fraser has covered the story far better in her biography.
The third section is about Queen Victoria, and her eldest daughter, Vicky. Victoria knew from a young age that she was to be queen, but also was raised in a restricted and controlled environment by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her crony, John Conroy, in the hope of ruling for Victoria if she became Queen before the age of eighteen. Fortunately for the British, this didn't happen. Strong willed, stubborn and not afraid of speaking her mind, Victoria was lucky enough to find herself the perfect husband and consort, her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Together they would have nine children, of which the eldest, named Vicky after her mother, was her father's favourite and blessed with a very quick intellect and brilliant mind. As with her mother, she married for love, choosing Frederick, son of the Crown Prince of Prussia. The pair were devoted to one another, hoping to bring their reactionary country to a more liberal government, based on the English parliamentary system. Unfortunately, they were not able to bring this about, opposed by both the Prussian royal family, minister Otto von Bismarck (who made Vicky's life a living hell), and finally their eldest son, Willy, who would grow up to be Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would set World War I into motion.
Along with the narrative, there are extensive notes, a bibliography, and genealogy tables. Two inserts of black and white and colour reproductions of paintings and photographs are included, which help to put faces to the various names.
Summing up, I felt that this was a pretty average read. While those who have not read anything about these six women would find this pretty interesting and informative, those with a solid grounding in the history would be bored stiff with this one. Far more extensive biographies and studies have been written, and a great deal of Gelardi has to say is pretty much covered elsewhere, and in far better prose. Most of what is in here is just reworkings from other writers, and there's very little that is new.
And that is too bad. While it's a fascinating way to look at history, Gelardi's narrative moves at a steady pace, but never really catches fire for the reader. About a third of the way through, I just wanted the book to be over, and that's a bad sign. Only recommended to those who are new to the stories of the women discussed, otherwise, stick with some of the better biographies out there.
Somewhat recommended, but a hearty 'no' from me. Three stars overall.