Thursday, April 14, 2011

Philippa Gregory's Constant Princess

Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.

Philippa Gregory’s novel about Katherine of Aragon, The Constant Princess, sets the stage for many of Gregory’s Tudor novels. In this novel, Katherine is a young girl who dazzles three Tudor men, Arthur Tudor, Henry VII, and young Henry VIII.  She is headstrong and vibrant--completely unlike the sad, defeated woman that we see in The Other Boleyn Girl.  
In The Constant Princess, Katherine is ambitious and proud, yet entirely devoted to her cause—that of becoming Queen of England. When her first husband, Arthur Tudor, unexpectedly dies before she produces an heir, she considers and then rejects Henry VII’s odd marriage proposal.  She endures years of hardship after refusing Henry VII. She becomes his prisoner--the King refuses to release her from England—and she is reduced to near poverty.  Her betrothal to Harry, a betrothal the Tudors never intended to honor, was the old King ploy to avenge her having snubbed him.
 Katherine marvelously triumphs over her vindictive father-in-law by marrying the boy king, Henry VIII. She becomes a ruling Queen who oversees the minutiae of the court, including the foreign policy and expenditures.  She gives the impression of abiding by Henry VIII while guiding him in what she sees as the right direction. She even defies Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s Grandmother, of whom everyone is afraid.
What Gregory does exceptionally well is dramatize historical events without altering them or modifying them to suit contemporary times. The novel is rich in historical details that simultaneously elucidate the period and edify the reader.  Katherine, for instance, longs for “salad,” but the English cannot believe that anyone would eat raw vegetables.  She is astounded to learn that the English have no running water and that they take baths infrequently. Equally astonishing is the fact that the English have no medical colleges or universities.
Every scene in Gregory’s novel propels the action, deepens characterization, and imparts historical details. When Katherine believes she is with child (for the first time) she sends for a Moorish doctor.  He cannot conduct a proper examination because the Queen’s body cannot be touched. During this time and beyond, royals believed their bodies were sacred after being anointed with oils during coronation.  Sadly, for three months Katherine stays in confinement, believing, erroneously that she is pregnant.
During her confinement, Henry VIII has his first extramarital affair. Katherine’s friend, Lady Margaret Pole, confirms it. Despite Katherine’s success in marrying Henry VIII and assuming the throne, a shadow of doubt about the validity of her marriage emerges, setting the scene for Gregory’s next exuberant novel, The Other Boleyn Girl.  Readers who want another version of the same story will want to read Jean Plaidy’s trilogy about the doomed queen:  Katherine, the Virgin Widow; The Shadow of the Pomegranate; and the King’s Secret Matter.  For a non-fiction treatment of the same subject, try Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon.