Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Forbidden Queen by Anne O'Brien

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 30, 2013

1415. The Battle of Agincourt is over, and the young princess Katherine de Valois is the prize to be offered to Henry V of England. The innocent Katherine is smitten with Henry, but soon understands that her sole purpose is to produce an heir to unite England and France. When Henry leaves her a widow at the age of 21, Katherine is forced to resign herself to a quiet life as the Dowager Queen; her duty is to raise her son, the young King of England, and little more. But Katherine is still young and passionate. Many desire her, and her hand in marriage is worth a kingdom. Setting aside those driven by ambition, Katherine falls in love with her servant Owen Tudor, and glimpses the happiness that love can bring. But their enemies are circling, all battling for power and determined to prevent their marriage. Katherine will have to fight to control her own destiny... In this compelling and beautifully written book, Anne O’Brien tells the story of the innocent young princess, Katherine de Valois, a pawn in a ruthless political game between England and France, and the woman who founded the most famous royal dynasty of all – the Tudors.

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Henry V weds Catherine of Valois
Katherine de Valois is a tantalizingly enigmatic historic figure. The daughter of Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria, Katherine married Henry V in June 1420 and was crowned Queen of England the following year. She welcomed a son in December 1421 and became a widow in August 1422. Still young and marriageable, the queen dowager planned to wed Edmund Beaufort, but intervention by Parliament quashed all hope of a possible marriage. Forced to live in her son's household, Katherine found happiness in the arms of one of her staff, a Welshman by the name of Owen Tudor. The facts of their relationship are rather sketchy, but the union resulted in the birth of at least three children if not more. The eldest of these was Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Already fond of the story, I was eager to read Anne O'Brien's The Forbidden Queen, but my enthusiasm was unfortunately short-lived.  

The Queen's Room State room at Leeds Castle
Image by Richard Croft
For one, there is little atmospheric detail and no timetable by which the reader might make reference. Births, deaths, and various battles are occasionally mentioned, but the narrative is marked by the distinct absence of both physical and political ambiance. 

The lack of authenticity also bothered me. Take for example Katherine's life after she is ordered to reside in her son's household. Am I truly to believe that outside the question of marriage, the queen dowager was allowed to live virtually free of Parliament, that she could uproot the royal youngster on a whim or that the child king wouldn't be surrounded by subordinates acting in the interest of the Lord Protector? I'm sorry, but I don't see it. Not during the intense power struggles of the Middle Ages. 

O'Brien's attempt to explore Katherine as someone who suffered confidence issues showed promise, but the context made it difficult for me to see her as someone of independent strength. Her courage and spirit ebbs and flows exclusively on the romantic attentions of men, making her appear codependent rather than capable. 

A difficult read, the only bits I truly enjoyed were the scenes in which Katherine questions her sanity. The allusion created a nice bridge between her father, Charles VI, and her eldest son, Henry VI, both of whom suffered some form of mental instability. 

Historically speaking, it is an interesting piece, but I think O'Brien could have done a lot more with it.

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What an inheritance for a young girl to shoulder. Madness on one side, wanton lewdness on the other. The lurid rumours filled my young mind. Would I become like Charles and Isabeau? Would I inherit my parents’ natures, as I had inherited my mother’s fair hair?
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Daphne said...

Sorry to hear this one wasn't better. I read her book on Anne Neville and thought it was just OK. I got a copy of this from Netgaley though so will read at some point. I was also underwhelmed by Joanna Hickson's attempt at Catherine's life (her book was The Agincourt Bride).

Judy said...

Still think Jean Plaidy's "epitaph for Three Women" is better on Katherine