Review of THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY
This installment in Gregory’s loose series (set during the same historical time period with overlapping historical characters but can be read in any order) follows Katherine of Aragon, Henry the VIII’s first wife and the woman known primarily for being set aside for Anne Boleyn.
Gregory is the author who first drew me to historical fiction and her work remains the bar against which I measure whatever else I read in the genre. She clearly does significant research and every book feels bursting with historic detail and atmosphere. However, what I relish most about a Gregory novel is how she makes these historical figures her own. Her characters come to life on the page. Whether or not her interpretation of the inner thoughts of someone long dead remains open for dispute, but regardless she pens a huge cast of compelling, believable characters with plausible motivations for the real-life figure. This book was a re-read for me, but I found myself glued to the page and reading longer than I should just the same.
Katherine of Aragon usually plays a secondary character in our account of Anne Boleyn’s or Henry VIII’s story. What I adore so much about this book is that it is Katherine’s story. The book ends well before Anne disposes Katherine from the throne, instead focusing on Katherine’s early years, ambition, and much overlooked accomplishments.
Whether Gregory got Katherine’s real psyche entirely wrong or not, her Katherine’s strength of character blows my mind. We often define strength by the physical or by flashy displays of exerting power over another, even if the power is more intellectual. However, I have a soft spot for characters with incredible emotional strength, like Katherine, characters whose circumstances overwhelm my empathy even on a hypothetical level. Katherine accepts her life with a matter-of-fact resolve, but I find myself marveling at the kind of restraint and determination life demands of her every single day. Court intrigue novels always unnerve me, probably because I shudder at a life where every word, every move must be carefully calculated, and one slight misstep could destroy your social standing and, therefore, way of life. Katherine finds herself in such a viper’s nest, but she handles everything with an admirable grace and poise.
In contrast, Gregory’s interpretation of Henry VIII is anything but flattering, though entirely believable as well. In fact, he’s a frighteningly familiar figure across history: a narcissist more concerned with his own ego and immediate gratification than anything of real substance, including other people’s well being not to mention the well being of the country he rules. One could almost mock him for his immaturity, but the ripple effect his actions take on the lives of others zaps all the humor out of his childish selfishness.
Gregory’s work will always hold a special spot in my heart as what introduced me to historical fiction and re-reading this book proves to me that special fondness is well deserved.