on 18 May 2006
Seemingly, writing a novel about piggy Henry (my special name for Henry VIII -- yes, I am biased and proud of it) and his six unfortunate wives has become very much the thing of late. So that the question of whether or not there really is a need for any more such novels becomes a legitimate question. I think that if an author possesses an interesting notion on how to handle this oft told tale(s), then she (or indeed he) should go for it. Laurien Gardner seems to possess such a take: by telling the story of each of these ill fated women via the voices of intimate friends. And in the very first installment of this series, "The Spanish Queen," Catherine of Aragon's (Henry VIII's first wife) early years in England, before she became Queen of England, and the last few years of her life -- whilst Henry was trying to end their marriage -- is told via the memories of Catherine's maid of honour, Estrella de Montoya.
The novel opens in 1501, with the arrival in England of a very young Catherine of Aragon, and her household (which, of course, includes an equally young Estrella de Montoya). Catherine is to marry the heir to the English throne, the sickly Prince Arthur. Her mind filled with tales of Arthurian knights and chivalry, Catherine is sure that she and her young maids of honour will meet and marry young English gentlemen that embody the very stories she has devoured. It is a time of great promise and much rejoicing. But all to soon, things come to a crashing halt, when days after their much celebrated wedding, Arthur dies, leaving Catherine a widow with no future. Abandoned and treated quite cruelly by her father-in-law (the tight-fisted and insecure Henry VII), Catherine clings to the promise made that she will marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry, when he is of age. In the meantime, she and her loyal maids must contend with the fact that they are growing older and that the splendid matches that were promised have come to nothing. As the years pass and their prospects shrink, the ladies must decide whether or not they should return to Spain unmarried or whether they should gamble with the vagaries of fortune and remain in England...
I've always had a soft spot for Catherine of Aragon (and for Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves), so that "The Spanish Bride" was quite the enjoyable read for me. Especially since, instead of rehashing old ground, Laurein Gardner wisely sticks to two periods in Catherine's life -- her early years before she became queen, and the last few years when things became quite precarious for her. Focusing on Catherine's faith in God and fate, we see how, in the early years, this faith allows
her to cling to the belief that all will turn out as she hopes, in the face of the obvious indifference of her father (Ferdinand of Spain), the petty cruleties of Henry VII and duplicities that members of her entrouage practise. We also see how this faith keeps her going, even as it is tested (in the later years, by her spoilt and idiotic husband and his bullying cronies. Framing and complimenting all this, are the experiences of Estrella de Montoya's, as she faces a life of probable spinsterhood, poverty and loneliness -- a life quite devoid of the romance that she had expected it to possess. If "The Spanish Bride" comes across as a bit of a gloomy book, I would still encourage potential readers to pick it up -- it is a very well written and very compelling read. I thought that the author did a wonderful job in making both the women in this novel, Catherine and Estrella, real and accessible. In "The Spanish Bride," Catherine comes across as something a whole lot more than the pious, shriveled wife that many historians and certain novelists portray her to be. And I liked that immensely. A quick and absorbing read, full of ambiance and atmosphere, I'd recommend "The Spanish Bride" to anyone looking for a good historical novel to read.