Gregory (The Virgin’s Lover, 2004, etc.) is back in Tudor England to reimagine the reign of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.
Catalina, the Infanta of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and warrior queen Isabella, was never meant for Henry. Instead, she was betrothed to Henry’s older brother Arthur. A few months after their marriage, a political arrangement uniting Spain and England against France, Arthur dies, and Katherine is married off to the much younger Henry. That’s the history of it—how Gregory fills in the gaps is pure romantic fiction. The best of the novel is the depiction of Katherine’s childhood in Spain. Her early years were spent on the battlefield, as her parents drove the Moors from Spain, and later in residence at the Alhambra. When at 15 she makes the journey to England, she is shocked by the comparative barbarity of the people (though she admits that the luxuries she’s used to—indoor plumbing, hospitals, good food—were introduced by the very people her parents have tried to exterminate). At first she dislikes Arthur, but the two fall in love and plan all sorts of progressive programs to improve England. On his deathbed, Arthur forces a promise from Katherine—tell the world the marriage was unconsummated, marry little brother Henry and carry on with Arthur’s dreams. At first the lecherous king makes a play for his daughter-in-law, but Katherine holds out for ten-year-old Henry. After years of living in poverty, she finally becomes Queen. Of course, our Catalina is not destined for a happy ending, but the early years of her marriage to the devoted Henry are joyous. Some may balk that in Gregory’s version, Katherine is responsible for defeating the Scots, others at the unlikely p.c. epiphanies she has at novel’s end—that the Moors are noble, and that war “will never cease until Christians and Muslims are prepared to live side by side in peace.”
Gregory makes the broad sweep of history vibrant and intimate—and hinges it all on a bit of romance.