Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Last Queen (Historical Fiction)

Author: C. W. Gortner
Publication Date: 2006
Length: 368 pages
Cost: The list price for the hardcover is $25.00. New copies are available at Amazon for $10.20, and used ones for $4.96, but these are softcovers. The Kindle edition is $8.25.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the library stacks when I was looking for one of the author's more recently published books.

The Backstory

The admirably unconventional subject of this novel is Juana I of Castile, better known as Juana la Loca (Juana or Joanna the Mad). Juana lived a dramatically tragic life during which she was pulled between a variety of different self-interested parties. She is known as "the Mad" for a variety of reasons that seem to be at least somewhat fabricated. It is clear, however, that both her husband and her father were intent upon controlling her in order to control the kingdom of Castile, and, unfortunately for Juana, they were largely successful.

Juana was born in Toledo in November of 1479, the third child of the famous Ferdinand and Isabella (Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile). Ferdinand and Isabella were the power-couple of their day--each of them held their respective kingdoms in their own right, and together, they completed the famous Reconquista of Spain, defeating the Moors who had inhabited the majority of the penninsula since the 8th century and initiating the first steps to unifying the country.

It was no surprise that Ferdinand and Isabella were interested in consolidating their position with other monarchs and dukes of similar standing in Europe. One way they accomplished this was through the political marriages of their children, and none would turn out more significant than Juana's marriage to Philip the Fair of Flanders. Philip was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and destined to be his heir to his extensive realm. At the time, Philip was acknowledged to be the Duke of Flanders when he married Juana in 1496. During the course of their marriage, they had six children, but the marriage was not a happy one. Philip was rather insecure and subsequently power-hungry. He was also regularly unfaithful to Juana, and this didn't go over well.

A series of tragedies transformed Juana from a Spanish Infanta to the heir to the kingdom of Castile. Her brother, her older sister Isabella, and Isabella's young son all died within a few years of each other. Without other brothers or direct male relatives to inherit, Juana became the Castilian heir (her father, Ferdinand, was confined to ruling Aragon after his wife's death). Juana's mother, Isabella, died in 1504, leaving Juana queen of Castile with Philip as her consort. This didn't go over well with her father, Ferdinand. Ferdinand married Germaine de Foix, neice of the French king, in the hopes of having other children who could rule both Castile and Aragon (he was unsuccessful).

It seems that this is the time when claims that Juana was insane start to materialize. Philip announced that he believed that Juana was unable to govern due to her mental state to the Spanish court in 1506. Ferdinand lost a great deal of support from the Castilian court after he embarked on the French marriage, and he was forced to acknowledge Juana and Philip's authority. However, he also signed an agreement with Philip that stated that Juana was unstable and unable to rule, which could have either been an expression of the truth and the need to provide for legitimate government in Juana's stead through Philip or an expression of Philip's insecurity and desperate bid for power. Philip succumbed to typhoid fever in the summer of 1506, leaving only Juana and her claim. In order to further control her, Ferdinand had her confined to a convent in Tordesillas.

After this, Juana was never again directly involved in any events related to Castile. Ferdinand died in 1516 without a male heir. Juana had transformed from his political rival to his successor. Juana was visited by her now adult son, Charles, and she agreed to allow him to rule in her name. He continued her confinement for the rest of her life. It is here that she exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, but this could have easily been caused by her confinement rather than by mental instability. She died there in 1555, only three years before her son, Charles.

Images Reference:

Juana of Castile by Juan de Flandes, c. 1500

Philip of Flanders (Philip the Fair) by the Master of the Magdalen Legend, c. 1500

Isabel I of Castile, painter unknown, c. 1485

What About The Book?

This was a great read, and I highly recommend it. It was a refreshing change from the nearly endless selection of Tudor historical fiction. The novel is composed from Juana's point of view, and I find this to be an interesting choice made by a male author--very rare indeed. Gortner does an admirable job seeing events from Juana's point of view, but his focus is clearly events rather than delving into the depth of feeling that would truly make Juana a three-dimensional character. On the other hand, the events truly make the story--the reader is enthralled, eager to discover what happens next in this exciting, but tragic, narrative.

The author does a good job of casting Juana's character throughout the novel, although her relationship with her parents is a little underdeveloped, and her husband, Philip, had the potential to become a more well-rounded character. Juana's relationships with her mother and father nearly entirely seal her fate, and a greater understanding of these relationships would have made the events that involve these characters more understandable. Her relationship with her mother is woefully underexamined save a few key scenes and letters, and her relationship with her father isn't entirely teased out as fully as it should have been in the latter portion of the novel. In particular, some of her father's actions and decisions at the end of the novel seem out-of-place. In Philip's case, he seems to transform from one exreme to the other without much more than a cursory explanation, and a greater exploration of his character would have made the series of events connected to him appear more realistic.

The events are mostly true, although the author's spin on them from Juana's point of view is mostly--if not entirely--interpretive. The author provides a short Afterward at the end of the novel in which he mentions an assessment of how much of the novel was interpreted and how much of it was based on primary sources. I think he is a little liberal in his claim that so much of it was true and so little of it a sign of literary license--there are several elements in the plot that jump out to readers as "probably interpreted" by the author regardless. For example, Juana and Philip had started living apart by the time Juana was declared the new queen of Castile, but Gortner paints a picture of an abused wife physically and emotionally violated by her husband and nearly literally held as a prisoner in her own house. It is more likely that Juana had moved away from her husband, plunging into a form of cold indifference. I have to give Gortner credit--he did give a list of further reading at the end of his novel, which is something I don't think I have ever seen before in a work of historical fiction.

Gortner has a soft spot for Juana. It is clear that he doesn't believe that she was truly ever mad, and if she developed a form of madness, it was more explicably a form of depression developed after years of conflict with her family, and after years of confinement. There were several rumors that indicated she was mad, and Gortner attempts to explain those events and incidents in the novel in a way to dispel any assumption she wasn't mentally stable. In fact, because of this, it would help to have a general background in Juana's life and why people thought she was insane--and Gortner's suggestions for further reading are probably the best sources.

The novel is extremely enjoyable and a read that is nearly impossible to put down. The story of Juana of Castile is truly evidence that historical truth provides a much more engrossing story than fabricated fiction.

Rating: Between an 8.5 and a 9. It was a fantastic story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Since the softcover is so reasonably priced, it would probably be worthwhile to buy it. If you do, you'll have the list of further reading availble to you. My recommendation is to read the book, then read one or two of the suggestions the author makes, and later, reread the book. Trust me, it is that interesting.


Edie said...

I am currently looking for a book about Isabella I and her early life/rise to power. Any suggestions? I'm looking for historical fiction, not necessarily a biography. Thanks!! I also added The Last Queen to my book list, it looks interesting to see one from Juana's point of view since that isn't commonly seen!

pilgrimchick said...

Hi, Edie. After I first read your query, I put some thought into it--Jean Plaidy has written a pretty wide range of novels focusing on Isabella and Spain (among many other subjects in her very long career as a historical fiction author). "Castile for Isabella" by Jean Plaidy and "The Royal Diaries: Isabel, Jewel of Castilla" by Carolyn Meyer are two possibilities. There is an extensive list of biographies for Isabella if you want to go the nonfiction route, although none of them seem to be exceptional. "Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen" by Nancy Rubin Stuart and "Isabella of Spain: The Last Crusader" by William Thomas Walsh are two of the most recent publications. Unfortunately, I can't attest to these personally. I think Isabella of Castile is a subject that is long overdue for another historical and fictional look.