I was thrilled to be invited to join the Blog Tour for one of the finest historical novels I have read, C.W. Gortner’s The Queen’s Vow, a compelling and emotionally powerful account of the life of the young Isabella of Castille. The review is below and under that I am delighted to present an interview with the author C.W. Gortner, in which he discusses, among many things, his influences and inspirations, his writing predilection for bad or mad queens, and his favourite novels of 2012. Many thanks to him for his time.
Isabella of Castile is one of the most enigmatic female figures of medieval history. Although known as one half of the relationship that united Spain (with husband Ferdinand of Aragon) and for despatching Christopher Columbus off to new worlds, in her own right she is remembered for her strength and resilience. Isabella is also, though, cloaked in the blackness of the Inquisition. Her own confessor, Torquemada, was its first Grand Inquisitor. Together they strove to unite the people of Spain by ridding the divided nation of its religious enemies, most notably the conversos – the converted Jews. Isabella, then, is a controversial figure. Sovereign and patron, a Spanish Gloriana, she was also a cruel zealot. What a perfect subject for a novel.
C.W. Gortner has achieved something remarkable with The Queen’s Vow. Focusing on the early years of Isabella’s life, including her first years as Queen, Gortner invites us to reassess this girl and young woman who became, against all the odds, Queen of Castille in her own right. This was no mean achievement, not least because of the warring family that surrounded her, waiting for her to falter, Gortner takes us through the events through the eyes of its chief witness, Isabella herself.
It’s impossible to dislike Isabella. Intent on winning – and earning – what is her due, she endures her treatment at the hands of the king, her half-brother Enrique, and his vicious wife. While her own full brother Alfonso becomes a pawn of the warring factions, Isabella is effectively a prisoner due to her sex and potential importance. As she moves around the castles of hot, arid Spain, receiving reports of battles won and lost, Gortner presents a most vivid portrait of this large kingdom, full of so many different races and religions. Quite apart from the dust and hot sun, this novel is ablaze with colour. It is an extremely luxuriant read, beautifully written, to be read leisurely, Isabella’s character savoured as events take place both within and outside her control.
Gortner also presents the other side of Isabella, the side that falls in love with Ferdinand, prince of the neighbouring, equally troubled kingdom of Aragon. Their relationship, in private and in the staterooms, comprises a large part of The Queen’s Vow. The mix of young love and pride is poignantly depicted. Again, it’s difficult not to like Isabella very much indeed, even with the growing religious influences on her which become more dominant as the novel goes on.
Before I read The Queen’s Vow, much of my historical fiction reading had been centred upon the military world of Roman or medieval soldiers. This novel, one of the finest novels I have read in a long time, has changed my approach. Supported by Joanna Hickson’s wonderful The Agincourt Bride which likewise brings a turbulent period of history to life through a female figure, I have re-discovered the obvious fact that there is a huge amount to be gained and enjoyed from this other perspective of history. Gortner, a male writer, deserves much praise for creating such a believable and realistic female character. Not only that, he also manages to rewrite Isabella. I long to see what he will do with her story next – I’m hoping Gortner returns to her (for an answer to that, see below).
In an earlier novel, The Last Queen, C.W. Gortner wrote about Isabella’s daughter Juana, known to history as the Mad Queen of Spain. I’ve snapped that up.C.W. Gortner – A Q&A
The Queen’s Vow presents a fascinating and memorable portrait of one of history’s most controversial queens, Isabella of Castille, but you don’t judge her. Did you have preconceptions about Isabella and, if so, how did they change?
As a novelist, I’ve always felt that judging a character is a slippery slope. Though he or she may have done unimaginable things, the act of judging someone can lead to condemnation and when we condemn someone, we lose our empathy. Empathy is a novelist’s most powerful emotion: by putting ourselves in another person’s skin, no matter how unfamiliar, we can become the character we wish to inhabit; the act of shedding our personality is what brings characters to life. That said, some characters are harder to empathize with than others, and for me, at first, Isabella was one of those. In childhood, I’d learned a little about her in school but most of what I retained was that she’d been a strong queen who united Spain, kicked out the Moors and Jews, and started the Inquisition. Indeed, she always seemed rather fearsome and one-dimensional to me. But when I researched her for my first novel about her daughter, The Last Queen, Isabella began to emerge as a more complex, interesting person. I learned that she’d suffered in her quest to rule Spain and that underneath the sombre demeanour of her later years, there had been a young and vibrant princess, whom no one had ever expected would ever be queen. When I discovered the dramatic yet relatively unknown tale of how she came to power, I knew I had to build a novel around her. Like most of us, Isabella did not start out as the person she became. Experience moulded her in unexpected ways; yet despite the obstacles she faced, she retained a core inside her that rarely wavered. She made bold choices, both as a woman and sovereign, in an era when few women could. For better and for worse, she also shaped the world that came after her. My first impression of a fanatic devoted to her faith was transformed by my research, as well. I discovered that while faith was paramount in her life, as it was for most people of her era, who believed survival of the soul after death was far more important than what happened to the body in life, Isabella struggled with what she believed was her sacred duty. She had doubt. She knew regret. She had great triumphs and made horrifying mistakes. She was, in the end, only human. And a human being, in all our complexity and contradiction, is far more fascinating than a cliché.
How difficult was it to put yourself inside the head and aspirations of a teenage girl? You manage it perfectly.
It wasn’t difficult, oddly enough. I don’t mean this to sound boastful in any way but I often have readers come up to me and ask how I do it, how do I write in a woman’s voice so well? I’m always flattered to hear this, naturally, but also somewhat surprised. For me, writing is much like acting: it transcends the limitations imposed by gender. An actor must strip away his or herself to become the person they are playing and most trained actors will tell you, becoming a man or a woman should be something they can do, if need be. Of course, actors also require makeup and prosthetics to create a gender illusion: writers, on the other hand, are invisible. Emotions are also without gender. We all know longing, desire, hatred, love, fear, ambition, sorrow, but society imposes how we must express or not express these emotions, according to our gender. When I write, I engage in initial preparatory work that helps me slough off the layers of societal expectation and experiences that comprise who I am. It’s an organic process, not easily defined, but when I get it right— and writing never works as it should until I do— I lose myself in my character in a way that reveals how she experiences her world. I just . . . become her. I don’t know how else to explain it. You’ll probably think I’m a little mad now, I suppose!
This period of Spanish history is both luxuriant and dangerous. What is it about the time and place that inspires your writing?
Those exact words sum it up beautifully: luxuriant and dangerous. Spain is unique among the European countries for its amalgam of cultures, which lasted for so long and shaped society in such marked ways. Spain also was one of the last countries to gain a national status, to become united under one crown. For centuries, its fragmentation into smaller kingdoms was its greatest weakness and conversely its greatest wealth. As a writer, there is so much richness of character and story to be found in the inherent differences among a people who share common blood and land, the ferocious sense of identity belonging to Aragón, or Castile and León; the fragrant fluidity surrounding the Moorish domains of Andalucía, and relentless battle to claim it; the insidious intrigues and rivalries of courts vying for power within one country. I’d love to write more novels set in the era and to go further back in time, to the medieval age, when these differences were even more distinct. The land of Spain itself is quite inspiring to me, as well. I’m part Spanish by birth and was raised near Malaga—the rugged cliffs and verdant vales, the castles and swirling rivers and huge saffron-tinted skies are home to me. When I see the land, I see history.
Do you like Isabella?
Yes and no. As with my other historical characters, I admire certain aspects of her; I like some traits; and deplore others. We have a complicated relationship. She is very different from me; we don’t agree on much, but I do stand in awe of her perseverance and commitment. She was undoubtedly extraordinary for her time, and conversely, very much a woman who could only have lived in her time.
Never say never, as the adage goes, but probably not in the foreseeable future. I did cover the years that come after the end of The Queen’s Vow in my first novel about her daughter, Juana, The Last Queen. Though we experience the subsequent events of Isabella’s reign and her death through Juana’s eyes, Isabella is a strong secondary character in that book, and most of her later story is there. However, I may decide to finish her story in her own voice one day. She does have a hold on me.
You’ve written about queens both dislikeable and even mad. Do you believe that they’ve been badly treated by history or do you agree with the assessment?
I believe history both elucidates and obscures at the same time. By its very nature, history reflects as much how we choose to interpret the past as how the past actually was. To our standards, Juana was indeed mad. She could not have dragged a coffin around with her in modern-day Madrid, or at least not for very long. Likewise, Isabella’s decision to wage war on people who worshipped differently than her or Catherine de Medici’s zeal to protect her dynasty even at the cost of a nation are viewed by our allegedly enlightened times as barbaric. And yet, such things still occur today and we must never forget that history is written in posterity, more often than not. Sometimes, this is as it should be. The voices of the lost, of the persecuted, must be heard when they weren’t at the time. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that’s the entire story. It’s not a matter of who’s right or who’s wrong: recorded history, in its purest form, should tell every side of the story and remain impartial but it rarely does. As with everything else not constructed by nature, recorded history is the work of mankind and we are fallible. We judge. We condemn. We exalt. So, in a long-winded way, I would say that history has treated these ladies in the way that diminishes their accomplishments and emphasizes their flaws. Elizabeth I is a character in my Spymaster books, for example, and though she made her share of horrible blunders – the massacres in Ireland, for one— is that the first thing that comes to mind when we think of her? No, we rarely think of her as intolerant. Her image has survived her flaws and indeed obscured them. She was magnificent and she made errors but we mostly remember what she did right. The women I write about, they’re mostly remembered for what they did wrong. I therefore don’t agree entirely with history’s assessment of them; but I don’t disagree with all of it, either. I seek to show another side, a hidden story under the known one, without necessarily exonerating or championing them.
There are several other queens I’d like to write about, yes, and I’m also attracted to characters from the past that aren’t as well known or even royal. I usually choose my subjects based on controversy. If someone has done something to generate a strong historical reaction, chances are they’re someone I’d be interested in. However, some subjects are more covered than others, and oversaturation tends to disinterest me. For example, my Tudor novels are based on a fictional character, a young man who becomes an intimate spy to Elizabeth before she takes the throne; I love the dangerous years after Henry VIII’s death and am a great fan of Elizabeth herself, but she’s been covered so extensively, in order to indulge my enthusiasm I had to find another way to approach the material. I’m also not as drawn to overtly benevolent or malevolent people, i.e., the saints or madmen. I may like their eras and stories, but I need to feel there is that hidden vein to be discovered, that tale untold. I must feel that spark of passion that will sustain years of researching and writing. It’s a labor of love, to write a novel. You must want to do it more than anything else and to get through the challenge of inscribing your vision on the page you must feel that this is a story only you can tell.
I grew up on Jean Plaidy and Sharon Penman. Which historical novelists inspired you as you grew up?
I definitely read Jean Plaidy. Her breadth is still awe-inspiring. She covered so many eras and personalities in her novels. At one point, I owned over 200 of her books. I also grew up reading Daphne Du Maurier, Anya Seton, Rosemary Sutcliff, Alexander Dumas, and Sir Walter Scott. I was perhaps most inspired by Daphne Du Maurier’s style, who was so at ease both with romantic suspense, such as My Cousin Rachel, and epic historicals like The Glassblowers.
What is your favourite novel of 2012?
Would it be cheeky to say, my own? Teasing aside, there were so many I loved I can’t single out just one. Of those most recently read before the end of the year, Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (published in Australia in 2012, out in the UK in February) just swept me away. The language and scope, entwining the stories of three women linked by the legend of Rapunzel, are breathtaking. And I loved Robin Maxwell’s Jane, an imaginative and thrilling evocation of the Tarzan legend, the first time the story has been written and told by a woman, through Jane’s eyes.
Thank you very much and thank you for The Queen’s Vow. I loved it!
Thank you for having me. I’m honoured to be here. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at my website at www.cwgortner.com