Sunday, May 4, 2014

Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen

Catherine of Aragon always seems to be seen in reflection - Henry VIII's first wife, Mary Tudor's mother, Charles V's aunt, and the stubborn and deeply religious cause of the English Reformation.  She was more, though - she'd have to be, to survive more time as Henry's Queen than her five successors combined.  She was deeply devout, and brilliant, and politically aware, yet because she was a woman, she had to rely on others in her attempt to prove the validity of her marriage.

The story of Catherine's life is well known, and while Tremlett portrays it well, the facts are too well known for any revelations.  The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who merged his minor kingdom with her more powerful domain to form the unified Spain that still exists, Catherine's early years were spent as a pawn on the marriage market.  Betrothed to Arthur, Henry VII's oldest son, she traveled to England as a pre-teen to be groomed for her eventual role.  She married Arthur, he died a few months later, and after three years in the limbo of widowhood, she married Arthur's younger brother Henry.  She failed to produce a surviving son, and after Henry took that as a sign that their marriage was cursed, spent the rest of her life trying to maintain her position.

I found Tremlett's insights into Catherine's personality more interesting.  Brilliant and with a flair for diplomacy, she acted as Henry's ambassador and stand in at various points in their marriage.  In fact, she was probably better at running England than her husband - both were intelligent and educated, but Henry, even before the head injury which may have been responsible for his later tyranny, didn't have the attention span or personality for ruling.  Perhaps this brilliance is why the Pope repeatedly postponed deciding on the validity of her marriage, or perhaps that brilliance led to the arrogance which kept her from accepting a settlement.

Catherine's faith, which sustained her through her trials, may have also been their partial cause.  She was from the medieval world which saw mortification of the flesh as necessary for eternal salvation and frequently fasted to the point of starvation, particularly during the three years between Arthur's death and her marriage to Henry.  The teenage Catherine spent those years wondering if she was going to be returned to Spain, married to her father-in-law, sent to a convent, or returned to the marriage market; it's not hard for modern eyes to see her faithful fasting as a way to control something in her life.  Anorexia, or some other eating disorder, could partially explain her pregnancy troubles.

That leads us to the big question - did Arthur and Catherine consummate their marriage?  Tremlett isn't sure.  Would such a devout woman fight so hard for a lie, or did the realization that she would lose everything overrule her ethics?  The announcement of her first pregnancy with Henry provides evidence for both sides of the argument.  The country was eager for an heir, so Henry and Catherine announced her pregnancy - several months before she was, in fact, pregnant.  On one side, this shows a level of comfort with private lies for political means, but Tremlett also discusses the possibility that neither Catherine nor Henry was fully aware of how conception worked.  One would think that if she'd consummated her several-month marriage to Arthur, someone would have provided her with some information.  The mystery remains.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Come Home

Come Home could benefit from some tartness.  Lisa Scottoline doesn't dwell in the same sub-genre as Laura Lippman but her legal thrillers have always had a bit of South Philly girlfriend addy-tood.  This novel, however, features a Main Line pediatrician and a Lifetime Movie tone.  I love seeing authors stretch, and (although it may surprise some to hear me say this), I don't assume that "chick lit" is bad.  Come Home, however, is, well, not very good chick-lit.  Three years after her divorce, Jill Farrow opens the door on a rainy night to find her former stepdaughter, distraught over her father's death.  Abby is convinced her father was murdered, the police are not.  Sounds like the perfect Scottoline set-up right?  Well, the solution turns on a rather dull (and accurately portrayed) bit of regulatory law, and Scottoline does manage to make that interesting.  Where she fails in in her usual strength - character.  As I mentioned last year, Scottoline's longest running character, Judy Carrier and Mary DiNunzio feel so real that I not only know them, I have been either one - or both - of them.  Jill Farrow, her fiancĂ©, her daughter and former stepdaughters - none of them feel real.  They're the sort of flat characters that trap talented actresses in RomCom Purgatory, cute and earnest and ultimately unbelievable.  Think Twice reminded me how much I like Lisa Scottoline's Rosato & Associates books.  Come Home has taught me to think twice if Scottoline's protagonist isn't a lawyer.

Hardly Knew Her

Laura Lippman calls her genre "tart noir" and the title fits her short story collection, Hardly Knew Her.    The stories are dark, and the women, although firmly planted in the 2010s, are acidly drawn successors to the sort of woman played by Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwick.  Lippman devotes the first two thirds of the collection to short stories featuring desperate women - a gambler's teenage daughter, an elderly woman denying her age, a mistress whose lover falls back in love with his wife, a babysitter with a dilemma - and sharp but believable plot twists.  Then there are three stories featuring Tess Monaghan, set before Tess's retirement in The Girl in the Green Raincoat, two cases and a "profile" of the accidental detective which foreshadows the earlier-written novella.  Finally, there's "Scratch a Woman" - too long for a short story, not quite a novella.  It's the story of a suburban call girl and her PTA-mom half sister, as tart and as twisted as the stories that precede it, and with perhaps the most surprising ending of all…or maybe not.