Title: The Spanish Queen: A Novel of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
Author: Carolly Erickson
Length: 276 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
[13/15 novels in November]
When Infanta Catalina of Spain is sent to England to marry Arthur, the Prince of Wales, she is confident that a great destiny awaits her as the future Queen of England. But Arthur dies just months after the wedding, and Catalina—now Catherine—spends seven long, uncertain years waiting to see what will become of her. As soon as her father-in-law dies, her handsome young brother-in-law, Henry, becomes king and chooses to marry the Spanish beauty himself. So begins a tumultuous and tragic marriage that will change the course of English history.
Carolly Erickson deserves credit for putting a disclaimer at the end of her novel that it is a “historical entertainment.” Since she often stretches or completely disregards the facts, this was a very important distinction to make.
Up to page 150 or so, I could have given this book three stars—despite its occasional flights of fancy and fictionalized nonsense (such as the inclusion of Catherine’s spiteful and illegitimate half-sister).
Then Anne Boleyn was introduced, and the book lost its way.
Full disclosure: Anne is by far my favorite of Henry VIII’s wives, so maybe I’m biased. But I’ll get to that later.
The book started off well. I liked young Catalina’s interactions with her mother, the famous Isabel of Castile, and I thought Erickson did a much better job bringing the Spanish setting to life than the later British ones. Her relationship with her fiance/husband, Arthur, was also sweet. At first, it reminded me of The Constant Princess, the only PGreg novel I ever enjoyed. But even that fell victim to Erickson’s apparent inability to create multidimensional characters.
She portrayed Arthur quite predictably: as a sickly, feeble young man who never had a real chance of surviving into adulthood. She made Henry VII so paranoid and neurotic that it was hard to understand how he could have remained in control of the kingdom. I’m no fan of H7, but it was kind of ridiculous. And on it went. Almost none of the supporting characters, Catherine’s second husband Henry VIII included, had a real personality to speak of. Most were defined by a few select traits.
I did appreciate that Henry and Catherine’s marriage wasn’t portrayed as perfect and blissful in the beginning. It was pretty refreshing to see H8 act like a dick in small ways before he became a complete, unforgivable asshole. But even his behavior little overblown. Every time Catherine miscarried or one of their babies died, including in the first few years, Henry would go off in a huff and tell Catherine, “I should never have married you”—even though the real Henry appears to have felt genuine affection for Catherine and did not begin considering an annulment until their daughter Mary was already seven or eight.
Pacing was also a major issue. The novel is pretty short for being narrated by Catherine of Aragon. To say her life was eventful would be putting it mildly. Short though it was, some sections dragged, while others flew by. I was never sure how much time had passed since the last part of the narrative. It was all very muddled and confusing even for someone who, like me, who has a solid grasp on the historical events.
There was a lot of telling-not-showing going on as well. Catherine claimed to care deeply about her daughter Mary—and in reality, she did—but they had all of two scenes together here. They never exchanged any letters, nor does Catherine ever mention having spoken with or seen her daughter. This happened with many of the frequently-discussed characters in the book. Elizabeth Boleyn was one of Catherine’s most trusted ladies-in-waiting early in the book, but after Henry shows interest in Elizabeth’s daughter Anne, she is never mentioned again. Towards the end, Catherine said that Anne’s aunt, Elizabeth Howard, had been her trusted lady for more than twenty years—but that was the first time she was ever mentioned. This narrative shortcoming of Erickson’s struck me as laziness, and it weakened the inter-character relationships, making most of them quite unbelievable.
The book was also riddled with inconsistencies. When Mary was born, Catherine wanted to name her Isabella. Even when Henry, angry that Catherine bore a daughter, refuses, Catherine claimed she would always think of Mary as Isabella anyway, but she only calls her Isabella again once. After showing Henry being unimpressed by and disinterested in Mary as a baby, Catherine claimed that Henry—as is documented—later paraded Mary around court, showing her off and bragging about her. There are dozens of other examples, small ones, but frustrating and annoying all the same.
As for Catherine herself, she had her moments. Erickson could have done so much more with her. She was famously religious, yet the depth of her faith were never delved. And while I have no doubt that Catherine would have done anything to protect her daughter, that she was under a great deal of stress, and that she probably had a temper, sometimes she could be quite cruel and vindictive. She seriously considered poisoning Henry’s baby bastard son, Henry Fitzroy; and later, doing the same to Anne Boleyn and her unborn child. She took pleasure in others’ suffering (Anne’s in particular) and wished harm on innocents.
Maybe this made her more “human,” but it seemed unnecessarily nasty and out-of-character.
She did have one quite touching moment with Henry:
I wrote the words, “We will hold fast.” It was the message Henry and I had exchanged many years earlier, when we were both young and besieged by difficulties… We had been drawn together then, we had become allies in our season of distress.
I asked Philip to give the paper to the king, once the solemnities ended.
When next I looked up, I found that Henry was standing beside me, looking as vulnerable as I had ever seen him. …
He stood there, gazing down at me, and I struggled to stand, coughing as I did. He hesitated—but only for a moment—then offered me his arm. His chivalry was stronger than his pride… Without saying a word, he led me out of the chapel… He…led me into the sunlit chapel garden, full of the scent of flowers and new-mown grass.
We had not spoken for many months. The silence between us was awkward. I dared to break it.
“We made a pact once,” I said softly, “you and I. We agreed that whatever others said or did, we would not let it sunder us.”
I could see that my words pierced his heart, torn as he was by strong emotions just then—grief, loss, perhaps even regret. He shook his head. He did not look at me, not even when I coughed and faltered as we slowly walked past the flowering stalks and bushes.
“I remember well,” he muttered under his breath… (230-1)
If only there had been more moments like that between Catherine and the other characters!
And now, the Anne Boleyn issue.
I hate to make half of my review of a book about Catherine of Aragon about Anne Boleyn, but Erickson’s caricature of Anne really spoiled the entire second half of the novel. I doubt Catherine liked Anne much, and we know that the Spanish ambassador and Princess Mary loathed her. Would it kill authors to portray both women fairly, though? Why is it always Saint Catherine and devilish, slutty Anne, or dull, frumpy Catherine and misunderstood, martyred Anne?
Here are just some of the adjectives Catherine uses to describe her rival in this novel: sullen, unruly, scrawny, disheveled, unappealing, defiant, prideful, brazen, willful, unchaste, moody, querulous, demanding, harsh, impatient, bitter, fearsome, insolent, loose, unworthy, careless, wayward, fickle, contrary, and domineering.
Just a little over-the-top, right?
Despite having made Henry out to be an unfaithful womanizer from the first, Erickson does everything in her power to paint Anne as a temperamental, unattractive, and promiscuous troublemaker.
Look—I know Anne Boleyn was no angel. She had a temper, could be cruel, spoke her mind, was ambitious and flirtatious, and she enjoyed parties, music, and dancing, perhaps in excess. But I also know she was well-educated, as pious as Catherine, kind to those she loved, charitable to those less fortunate than herself, that she loved the English people, and that she was a loving, devoted mother. No one is all good or all bad.
And oh, was she shown as being all bad here.
Erickson’s Anne was sent away from the prestigious court of Archduchess Margaret of Austria for “the sin of lust,” for which her would-be fiance Jamie Butler also rejects her. This is utter nonsense. Anne was never banished from Margaret’s court. (In fact, Margaret seemed fond of “la petite Boulin,” and she told Thomas Boleyn that Anne was “so presentable and so pleasant, considering her youthful age, that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me, than you to me.”) She clearly did not leave the Netherlands “lack[ing] polish and self-assurance,” as Catherine claimed, nor did she return to England afterward. Rather, she left to accompany her sister Mary to France, where she eventually served in Queen Claude’s strict and religious household. During her time there, Anne became fluent in French and adopted French fashions, which—along with her dark complexion, hair, and eyes—made her seem “exotic” when she finally went to serve Queen Catherine in England.
It just gets worse from there. No mention was ever made of Anne’s doomed romance with Henry Percy. Cardinal Wolsey forbid Percy to marry Anne, leaving both young people heartbroken. Only after this did Henry begin to actively pursue her.
But as soon as he did, the fictional Catherine vilified her even further. Though Anne lived in her apartments as one of her ladies—and though she had watched Henry pursue other girls for twenty years, rather than be pursued by them—she blamed Anne and Anne alone for her husband’s betrayal. Instead of considering that Anne may have “demanded” marriage as a way of protecting her virtue (of course, Catherine assumed Anne had none), she even repeated rumors that Anne might have been pregnant already.
In short, Anne is here in her traditional mold: the arrogant, insolent, shrewish homewrecker who “captured [Henry’s] obdurate heart.” The possibility that she was a virtuous girl who had no desire to follow in her sister’s footsteps by becoming the king’s temporary mistress was never entertained.
Catherine observes that:
Anne did not love Henry. Of that I was certain. She did not show him any of the kindness or constancy or even simple fondness that women in love cannot help but show.
Instead she was harsh and impatient and filled with bitterness.
… [When] Henry came to seek her out, there among the women of my chamber…they quarreled. Anne accused him of failing to keep his word and end his marriage to me, of cowardice, of forcing her to squander her precious youth and sacrifice her good repute. And all for nothing. (191-2)
I know this is set in the sixteenth century and all, but would it have been absurd to consider that Anne—whether she loved Henry or not—had been chased and courted by her king and, conscious of her honor and “good repute,” did what any sensible girl would do: tell him that if he liked it, then he should put a ring on it?
But no. Anne could only have been a greedy, power-hungry, [insert adjective from the list above] slut.
Worse, though, is that Erickson also perpetuates the myth that Anne was promiscuous even after her marriage to Henry. Catherine says:
[Anne] was proving to be more fearsome and demanding than he had expected. And less pure.
The duchess was certain that my husband was sleeping with Anne… But according to…Charles Brandon, Anne was keeping company with another man as well.
My prayers were being answered. Anne’s true nature was showing itself. (207, emphasis mine)
Dear historical fiction writers: Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of adultery, for which she was executed. The charges were trumped-up as an excuse to get rid of her. Stop pretending like there was any merit to them! (Looking at you, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel.)
Other negative things about Anne—said by Catherine and others—included that she: “is not beautiful [or] young. … She lacks the grace to walk like a baroness, much less a queen.” That she “flaunts” and “shames herself.” That she is “unmannerly and brazen,” “rude and braggardly,” and “without a shred of modesty or dignity.” That “her ill-behaved style [and] loose, sensual attitudes and tastes” are “ill suited to the dignity necessary in a queen.” That she “raved and shrieked” and “taunted” and “shamed” Henry.”
Most outrageous of all, Catherine claimed that Anne tried to have Henry Fitzroy killed (something that Catherine herself had seriously considered just one hundred pages earlier) and that she ought to have been punished.
Would it not be far more compelling and unique to have Catherine, as angry and hurt and perhaps bitter as she must have been, recognize that her rival/replacement was human, too—to describe an Anne Boleyn who was not the ugly, ill-natured whore who bewitched Henry, but a witty and well-intentioned young woman caught up in something bigger than herself?
I guess that’s wishful thinking.
Again, I apologize for going on for so long about Anne in this review, but her dreadful characterization really ruined the book for me. Instead of wasting so much time belittling Anne, I wish Erickson had spent more time on Catherine and her actual experiences. What did she do and why did she do it; how did she feel; whom did she see? Sadly, the last third of the novel gives us only hints of these things.
Better characters, more character interaction, and better pacing could have made The Spanish Queen a three- or three-and-a-half star book. As-is, I give it a grudging two.