Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book #4: "The Constant Princess" by Phillipa Gregory

I remember the very instant when this book turned me off. I remember the exact moment when I put the book down and sighed as I understood exactly what this book- about Katherine of Aragon, erstwhile wife of Henry VIII - was going to be like. I knew right then that I wouldn't like it and that it would probably end up making me angry. I knew I would finish it, and I wouldn't enjoy it the process.

It was about four chapters in, when Henry VII, the aging King of England, looks at his son's fiance and thinks about Katherine's "sexy mouth". That word. "Sexy". In a historical novel about Tudor England.

That simple, stupid word brought all my knowledge of bad historical novels crashing down on me. I knew in a flash that this book was going to be tedious, terribly inaccurate and worst of all, painfully cheesy. And I was right.

Listen, I get that people who write historical novels have to embellish their stories from time to time. I get that I'm just supposed to "enjoy the ride", not cringing at every stupid cheesy line in the book that would seem more fitting in a CW prime-time teen drama. I get that you want to make an already interesting story your own. Sometimes it works, if the writer is skilled enough to make the story seem a little bit interesting, but Phillippa Gregory just isn't that kind of author. As it turns out, she's taken what was a truly interesting historical character who lived at a tumultuous time, and she's turned her into the worst sort of whiny Disney princess, who sits at windows pining for true love. And it doesn't even have an interesting Prince and dancing characters to make up for the pathetic Princess.

Here's the true story: Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. You know, the Spanish monarchs who sent Columbus off to do his thing. At age 4 she was formally betrothed to Arthur, son of Henry VII and heir to the throne of England. She was sent to England some years later, where she was married to the prince. She was left alone in a country whose language she didn't even speak yet. Her one job was to get married and give England an heir. Unfortunately, Prince Arthur died just a few years later, leaving her a widow and making his younger brother, Henry, the new heir. When Henry became King and needed a wife, Katherine seemed like a good choice. The Pope declared her marriage to Arthur as void, as it had never been consummated (there was wide belief that Arthur was impotent). Henry then married her, finally making her Queen of England. Later, as well all know, Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn and divorced Katherine, claiming that she had lied all along about the consummation of her marriage to Arthur.

See, I think that's a pretty fascinating story, especially the years between Katherine's marriage to Arthur and her subsequent marriage to Henry. Unfortunately, there's very little historical evidence of what those years were like for Katherine, and there's no definite answer to the question of whether Katherine lied about her relationship with Arthur. Gregory takes advantage of this and makes up a story. It's tempting to do that: you have your characters and an overarching plot. Just add some romantic stuff to the parts no one is really sure about. Gregory's idea is that Katherine lied to Henry and everyone else, and that her marriage to Arthur was one of true love--and rainbows and puppies and hot sex. But they didn't tell anyone about it...for some reason.

Yeah. In between whining about how much she misses Spain and whining about how much she wants to be Queen, Katherine falls deeply in love with Arthur. There's really no reason for it, other than, "Why not? It'll make a good romance story!" Gregory's explanation as to why no one ever really knew whether Arthur and Katherine slept together is that he used to sneak into her bedroom when everyone had gone to sleep and they'd have sex for hours, and he would leave before anyone saw them. You might be wondering how this makes any sense, and let me tell you: it doesn't. It's just a stupid plot contrivance that Gregory came up with to get away with writing a fairy tale about a princess who falls in love and then becomes really sad about it.

It's just terribly cheesy and straight out of a Young Adult novel, which I personally think is sort of insulting to the real Katherine. Athur and Katherine whisper sweet nothings to each other like two teenagers in love, instead of two complete strangers in an arranged marriage at a time when marriages were all about business and not love. I get that you want to romanticize it, but this book is just ridiculous. Specially when we know what life was like at that period, and that we know how the story ends. And it takes him just forever to die! It's almost 200 pages of cheesy, chaste little love scenes and rainbows and happiness. I kept muttering for Gregory to just get on with it and kill Arthur so that we could read something more compelling; for example, her far more interesting marriage to Henry VIII. But that just gets relegated to the last few chapters of the book, which makes absolutely no sense to me.

Some of the worst parts of the book come in the form of little asides in between actual scenes, which are told from Katherine's point of view. We know this because they're italicized, which makes them easier to skip. Once I got past the eye-rolling stupidity of the passages where a 10 year-old girl sounds like a wise woman of the world, I just started skipping them altogether. Because they were invariably in one of three lines: 1) I so want to be Queen! I was born to be Queen! For...some reason! 2) I love Arthur! he is so cute and sweet and my Prince Charming! and 3) I miss Spain! This is what Spain was like! Let me repeat it 1500 times so you'll get it! It was just ridiculous.

I don't know how I finished it, to be honest. I'd read a couple of pages, roll my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head, and put the book down to go do something else. I took some notes as I read it. Here's a couple:

-"Tell me a story", said Arthur NO. SHUT UP. ENOUGH STORIES.
-"True Love" PSHAW. THIS IS TUDOR ENGLAND. WHERE IS THE PLAGUE WHEN YOU NEED IT?
-SNORE

You get the idea. This book suffers from a terrible case of "Empty Dress Syndrome", a term perfectly explained by Ranylt Richildis of Pajiba in this review, which is, appropriately enough, about a movie adaptation of another one of Phillippa Gregory's 'romances'. In short: the book is all frill and no substance. There's nothing else there but the illusion of something pretty. And the frill isn't even remotely interesting to look at.

It was just a huge disappointment. I love reading about the Tudors. They were a fascinating family, and the history surrounding them is just rife with great stories for people to tell and read. It's just a shame that Gregory seems to have cornered the market for these stories, because turning them into pathetic little romances just demeans them. As far as I can tell, all of her other books run in the same vein as this one, and it's just not a line I'm interested in pursuing.

2 comments:

xoxoxoe said...

I forgot that I read this book and how much I disliked it. There was a real story there, as you said, but you'd never know it. It's horribly unfair that she keeps getting to write about the Tudors. Someone gave me the White Queen or the Red Queen and i haven't even cracked the cover. maybe I'll donate it to the library ...

Marties said...

I enjoyed your review of this book. I, too, was upset by it. I did want to let you know that Prince Arthur died 6 months after he and Katherine were married. He was never in good health. That the marriage was never consummated is not at all unlikely.

I was mainly upset that this author depicted a woman, who was known for her devotion to God, as a shameless liar. It's just cheap and tacky. As you have said, the truth is much more interesting.