The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory

Story of the girl who became Henry VIII's first wife, focusing on her first marriage to Arthur, and the early part of her marriage to Henry. The book is split between third and first person narrative, with Catherine telling some of the story in her own words.

After having recently finished reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, it was interesting to have a story that mostly covered a slightly earlier period, and also to have Catherine appearing as a young, feisty princess, rather than a frumpish dowager, stubbornly hanging on to life in a remote castle. In fact, what little reading I've done about Catherine seems to focus mostly on the latter part of her reign, when Henry was trying to get rid of her: there doesn't seem to be much about the early part of her story.

Obviously, I was interested to see how she'd explain the story of Catherine's first marriage to Arthur: was the relationship consummated or not? And the answer was interesting: yes, Catherine and Arthur were passionately in love, but they kept it a secret, and had Arthur sneaking into Catherine's bedroom every night without everyone knowing. On his deathbed, Arthur, who realised that Catherine had the makings of a great queen, made her promise to tell everyone that he'd been impotent, so that she could marry Henry and fulfil her destiny as England's queen.

To start with, I found it a bit difficult to believe this alternate history - partly it's out of character with what other stories I've read, and partly the facts of the story (at least as described in Wikipedia) make this version seem unlikely. E.g. Wikipedia says that Arthur and Catherine could barely understand one another, since they had no shared spoken language. The book also has Henry VII falling for Catherine, and suggesting he marry her following Arthur's death, which is not something I think I've seen in any other tellings.

Some of the things in the book do seem based in fact (although perhaps they're exaggerated). E.g. in the book Catherine plans that Henry should go and fight the French while she engages the Scots. She does so, and her tactics lead to a victory for the English. This would seem a bit far-fetched but for the fact that she really did get involved with The Battle of Flodden and does seem to have played a fairly important role.

And Henry VIII is a rather immature character who's mostly in thrall to Catherine, and relies on her to organise the court and act as ambassador/diplomat as the need arises.

So you get the feeling that Philippa Gregory has taken the known facts of the story and provided an alternate explanation for how they happened based on Catherine being determined and competent. I'm not sure she really was like that, but by the end of the book I think I wanted to believe it.

I did rather get drawn into the story, which, although it was a bit Mills & Boon-y, was quite readable and engaging. It was especially interesting in that I knew how the story would turn out, so that often I found myself thinking "how's she going to get from this situation to where I know the story has to end up?" But I think this was accomplished very well.

What did feel a bit odd was that there were a couple of largish sections which were skipped over. The period of several years following Arthur's death before Catherine married Henry: this took only a couple of pages. And following the victory against the Scots at Flodden, we jump forward about thirteen years to the last part of the book where Catherine is about to enter the court and assert that she is Henry's true wife. I guess the book would have been quite a bit longer if she'd done that, but it would have been interesting to have some story about how Catherine lost her influence at court over the years.

But I did enjoy it, and will look for more by this author.

Completed : 05-Aug-2013 (audiobook)

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