Friday, June 15, 2012

Ignore the fashionable "Where the hell did my forehead go?" cover photo and pick up this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Poor Queen Juana. Like many others who have had even the slightest interest in European history, I'd bought completely the story of her madness. How she kept her husband's moldering corpse with her at all times, how she periodically opened the casket to kiss it and embrace it. How her jealousy knew no bounds and even in death she kept every other woman away from 'Philip the Fair'. How she roamed around, mad as a hatter, and was confined most of her life to protect her and the Spanish countryside from her fits of mania. However, after reading Julia Fox's incisive and compelling account of Juana's and her sister Katherine's lives, I was astonished at how bamboozled I'd been. I'd should've known, though. After all, by whom has history been written? The victors, i.e. men, and the three men who wrote Juana's history--her father, Ferdinand, her husband, Philip, and her son, Charles--were three of the most manipulative and politically underhanded men to have ever roamed the chessboard of European politics in the 15th and 16th centuries. Though Juana may never have been entirely mentally stable, according to the story presented by Fox, it's quite probable she was never as unhinged as she's been so famously portrayed. Most definitely, her relationship with her husband, stormy enough when he was alive (and he was truly a complete shit, thoroughly deserving all her erratic behavior), wasn't at all as disturbed as the legends would have it when he died. Certainly she grieved and certainly her behavior wasn't understood by the masses. However, all she wanted was to bury Philip at Granada, his right as king, and her cross-country pilgrimage to that city was hindered and eventually halted by those wishing to keep her under their thumb, "those" being her father and her son. Fox presents new and enlightening accounts of visitors who, upon meeting Juana and expecting to confront a madwoman, are astonished at her ability to converse sensibly, to show rational thinking and reasoning, and her mild mannered behavior. In fact, if it hadn't been for Juana's meekness and total brainwashing by her parents and husband, she might've actually been able to throw off her oppressors and rule for herself. However, to her dying day, she would hear nothing negative or derogatory spoken about any of the men in her life, men she always believed--even when presented with evidence to the contrary, even when she was abused and tortured by the jailers hand-picked by her father and son--that those men always had her best interest in mind. She had neither the will nor backbone, as her sister Katherine did, to strike back; her only form of protest were childish temper tantrums and hunger strikes, making her madness all the more believable and her husband's/father's/son's job all that much easier.

Fox also presents a new angle to Katherine of Aragon. Through the years, when we're told the story of King Henry VIII's perfidy towards her, we're also presented with a picture of a saintly woman, a meek and mild woman who, though she tried to fight the divorce proceedings brought against her, was helpless to do anything to reverse the tide pulling her away from Henry's side. However, Fox shows that, as the daughter of the indomitable Queen Isabella of Castile, Katherine had more spirit and fire than what most people knew. In the early years of her marriage, she relished being the elder partner, the adviser to a young and inexperienced King Henry. This was a woman who could marshal forces and direct supplies in order to win at the Battle of Flodden, a massive win for England when Henry was away fighting in France. She was a capable regent and canny political manipulator, taught to dissemble by the best, her father. She was also stubborn and willful, and at times extremely naive, trusting those who weren't worthy and berating those who only had her best interests at heart. However, like Juana, she trusted implicitly her father and her nephew, Juana's son Charles. So when she was told that Juana had gone mad, she did not doubt them, as she hadn't spoken to or seen her sister in many years; when Juana was imprisoned, Katherine believed the lies. In this, she was ever being ever the dutiful daughter and servant of Spanish interests, believing and doing what was asked of her in order to promote Spain above all else, even when it put her in a precarious position and occasionally damaged her reputation and credibility.

In this, Fox has exposed the heart of what drove these two women and what eventually became their downfall: family loyalty. Juana and Katherine, though raised by a dynamic duo of rulers and educated to the first degree, lived in a world were women were little more than walking wombs. And though Isabella was equal to Ferdinand (in fact, his superior, her realm being much larger and richer than his) and their ruling partnership exactly that--a partnership--they were a rarity in that male-dominated world. In fact, after Isabella's death, Ferdinand showed his true colors by keeping his daughter, the true ruler of the Spanish territories, sequestered and powerless. As such, though Juana and Katherine had the ability and, in Juana's case, the right to rule as equals, those rights were stripped away by the men in their lives. Yet, as always, family loyalty kept whatever ambition either sister held in check as neither one demurred against these restraints.

I haven't read Fox's previous book, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford; however, after reading Sister Queens I will be seeking it out. Julia Fox has a captivating and engaging writing style. She's able to present a depth of information in an immensely readable manner; this is certainly no ponderous academic tome, with dry-as-dust narration of facts and figures. The writing flows; it's lively and descriptive, reading almost like a novel. Yet don't be fooled; Fox is a true historian, not some jumped-up novelist pretending to be an expert, a la Philippa Gregory. And while you can tell she's definitely on Katherine's side when it comes to Anne Boleyn, she doesn't stoop to the popular trend of treating Anne as the embodiment of pure evil. (In fact, she clearly shows that some of the actions ascribed to Anne during that time were actually those of Henry.) In the end, Sister Queens is an in-depth examination of two women who tried to do their best as daughters, wives, consorts--or, as I like to call them, political pawns--always while being pulled in opposite directions.

Read December 23-31, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 5, 2012

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