Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Constant Princess ~ Philippa Greogory

Feel free to link up to your review or discussion of The Constant Princess at the bottom of this post.  There's no need to link back, but keep in mind that if your link isn't on-topic, I will delete it.

As I mentioned the other day, The Constant Princess isn't the kind of thing I normally read, but the audiobook caught my eye at the library and I decided to give it a shot.  The Constant Princess precedes Philippa Gregory's more famous work, The Other Boleyn Girl, and gives a fictionalized account of the early life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife and queen of Henry VIII of England.

My initial response to the novel was a resounding meh.  The reader's voice is a little haughty and her third-person narration isn't easily discerned from Katherine's first-person narration that the text flits in and out of.  Plus, I tend to go for audiobooks that are very plot-based and have a good amount of action, to keep my attention, which this novel sorely lacks.  As for the writing, it was a bit flowery and dramaticized for my taste, which probably explains why I had such difficulty immersing myself into the novel.

On top of that, I was irritated by the sense of entitlement that so may of the characters exude.  Catalina, who becomes Katherine, begins the novel with a puffed-up perception of her own importance.  I was so irritated by that that I nearly turned the thing off, until I saw the other aspect of her character.  She is not just some spoiled princess who thinks she is "especially favored by God" but a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who is truly at the mercy of the men around her.  Despite being royalty, she is not at all free and her actions are almost never of her own choosing.  Once I saw this aspect of her character, interestingly coupled with her sense of entitlement, I began to come around to the story.

Gregory definitely takes some liberties with the story of Katherine's life, the extent of which I'm now learning as I just began reading Sister Queens, a biography of Katherine and her sister Juana.  However, in some cases it does seem that she is filling in the gaps of history with her own interpretation and dramatic spin, and that is no crime.  The angle where Katherine had a passionate, loving relationship with her first husband, Henry's older brother, is not necessarily historically accurate but also not necessarily untrue.  It certainly gives2 her devotion to Henry later on a different flavor.  There were certain aspects of history that Gregory stuck to, like the marriages and bedding of such young individuals, children really, which other interpretations like The Tudors prefer to gloss over for their readers.  I appreciate these bits of accuracy because while not everything is historically true and certainly not comfortable, these details really set the scene in its proper time.

The bits that engaged me the most related to religion and the Crusades.  At the beginning, one of the reasons that I was so turned off by Katherine was her hearty endorsement of the religious wars her parents constantly engaged in.  However, much later in the novel, and decades later in her life, Katherine comes to realize that maybe this was wrong and maybe her Christian parents had destroyed much of value in their efforts to spread the bound of Christendom.  This was a great bit of character development and really quite advanced for that time and her position.

After my rocky start, I really started to enjoy the novel, though more for the bit of history it told than for it itself.  Unfortunately, the ending was extremely disappointing.  After a few years of marriage to Henry VIII and a great personal accomplishment (was Katherine really responsible for defeating the Scots?!), the novel suddenly skips about fifteen years to the point when she's waiting to testify in the King's Great Matter (aka trying to convince the Pope to grant him a divorce), and then just as abruptly ends.  There's hardly any exploration of the turmoil or sense of betrayal that Katherine must have felt at that time.  I know that The Other Boleyn Girl was already written by then, and it's clear that Gregory is trying to lead new readers into reading that as well, but the jarring, incomplete end failed to do justice to the story and to Katherine's life.

Overall, it's not the most amazing novel I've ever read, but it kept my attention and opened up a whole new world of interest to me, which few novels do, so I appreciate that.  And yes, I have started listening to The Other Boleyn Girl, per the instructions of the commenters on this post.  Gregory's writing may not be my favorite, but I'm enjoying it thus far and am glad that I decided to leave my comfort zone and give her a chance.

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