Thursday, July 5, 2007

All the Worlds a Stage in which the Men are Mere Puppets of the Women around them: A Book Review of the Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

The Constant Princess tells the story of Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and wify number one of Henry VIII. (This is the wife which Henry had to make his own church in order to divorce her.) Catherine definitely had in interesting life story and in the hands of a more capable writer this could have been a worthwhile book. She was originally betrothed to Henry’s older brother Arthur. Soon after she arrived from Spain though, Arthur, one fine day, suddenly dropped dead. (This tended to happen a lot in premodern Europe.) So what to do with this sixteen year old Spanish princess sitting in your kingdom with a fat dowry attached to her? Well Henry VII, using impeccable medieval political logic, decided to not send her home and instead decided to have her marry Arthur’s little brother Henry, who was six years younger then her. This required special papal dispensation from the Pope. This becomes important later on because when Henry VIII tried to divorce her he argued that he should have never been given the dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place. (Henry VIII can serve as a wonderful model to us Jews as to how to shop for heterim. I ask my Rav for a heter to marry my brother’s wife. Then I ask the Rav to say that he never should have given me the heter in the first place and that I am free to marry my pregnant mistress. When the Rav refuses to give me the heter to annul his earlier heter, I simply form my own shul make myself my own Rav and give myself all the heterim I want.)
The problem with this book is that it is a feminist fruvel (frum novel). As with Jewish fruvels all pretenses of plot, narrative and character is sacrificed for one very noble goal, the declaration of the superiority of a given group over everyone else. In this case the group in question are women. The whole book is premised on the notion that men are stupid, lecherous and easily manipulated, particularly if they are European, white and Christian. It is the women who are in control of everything. Isabella is the ruler of Castile and Aragon and the commander in chief of its armies. Ferdinand is that nice boy who helps out mainly by staying out of the way. Henry VII is a smelly, patriarchal barbarian who has to constantly fight to suppress the overwhelming desire to rape his daughter in law. The court is run by his mother Margaret, who we are told, placed Henry VII on the throne and for all intents and purposes is the ruler of England. Margaret is a villain of sorts in this story in that she is the primary adversary of Catherine through much of the book but this is also in keeping with the book’s ideology. In this matriarchal world in which men are in essence incapable of putting on their own trousers without some women’s help, it only makes sense that Catherine’s main adversary would be a woman; a man would not have the necessary control over his own circumstances to qualify as a decent villain. The most positive male character in the entire book is Arthur and his main virtues are that he agrees with Catherine that England is completely uncivilized and that he promises to implement all of Catherine’s proposed reforms and make England a more enlightened place. Even he is incapable of having an independent thought. Arthur and Catherine are lovers but when Arthur dies Catherine, acting upon Arthur's dying wish, claims that the marriage was never consummated and that she is still a virgin. Henry VIII is an arrogant clod whose only real talents seem to be jousting and archery. He is incapable of doing anything right and leaves the kingdom to Catherine very capable hands.
The climax of the book of the book is when Catherine saves England from Scotland. She does this by getting Henry VIII to participate in a campaign against the French. With Henry safely out of the way, Catherine personally leads the English army to war against the Scots and single-handedly crushes them at the battle of Flodden.
I have no objection to writings books with strong female characters that are in control over their own destiny. The moment one starts to write a book simply for the purpose of having strong female characters one has stopped writing literature and has started to write propaganda.

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