Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Forbidden Queen, Anne O'Brien (2013)

Source: NetGalley

The Forbidden Queen, a historical novel based on the life of Katherine of Valois, definitely caught my attention as it not only is it about a little known (at least by me) queen, it is about a woman who was the mother of King Henry VI (by King Henry V), grandmother of King Henry VII (father of the Tudor dynasty, by her union with Owen Tudor), thus great-grandmother of the infamous King Henry VIII!  

However, even before all this, she was also the daughter of the French King, Charles VI and the infamous Isabeau of Bavaria (who also needs her own novel, by the way!).  This is all a bit too much to take in, so I've posted part of their family tree, which I obtained from  If anybody's interested in seeing the entire Plantagenet family tree, just click on the link and there you have it!

The author very cleverly states in the cover that Katherine is an "innocent wife," a "captive widow", and a "Tudor mistress," giving us the idea that this woman had three separate lives - and indeed she did.  I'm going to be bold enough to include a "pawned princess" title to the set as before she married Henry V, her parents took advantage of her and her siblings to obtain as much power as possible.

Pawned Princess      

Katherine of Valois

Katherine of Valois is a young princess at the start of the book, aproximately five years old, living in squalor and abandonment in the French Palace, Hôtel Saint-Pol,  alongside her slightly older sister, Michelle, abandoned by her insane father and her unfaithful, power-hungry mother.  

(I wonder if the bouts of insanity King Charles VI underwent were passed on to his grandson, King Henry VI? Hmmm... Did anyone write some scholarly paper on it?  Ok, back on track.)

After a few years of living like street urchins, but in a palace, their mother decided to remember the existence of her two youngest children and took them to be raised in a convent at Poissy.  There, Katherine and Michelle lived in austere, strict circumstances in order to be disciplined into becoming acceptable princesses to be sold married whenever time served.  
Isabeau of Bavaria and King Charles VI

To be honest, before reading this novel, it never occurred to me that princesses (or princes, for that matter) could live in such a neglected manner.  Granted, I've always read about their having their own households by the time they were one year old, and such ridiculousness, but to be openly left to starve and then placed in a convent... Wow! It definitely was not good to be royalty at that time, at least in France.  Kudos to the author for depicting an event so realistically and including uncommon information to the public.

Anyway, she lived there in seclusion until she became a teenager, when her mother saw fit to visit her again to inform her of her plans to marry her off to THE Henry V of England, aka the Agincourt victor.  Of course, even though he was a lot older, what girl, especially one living in her circumstances, wouldn't dream about finally being free, married to a powerful king, becoming queen and living happily ever after?  She did of course!

And so, her mother pawned negotiated her marriage to Henry V, who actually played a bit hard to get and demanded a high dowry, until Queen Isabeau decided to take away the Dauphin's right to inherit the crown of France (remember her husband, the king, was still insane and couldn't really object) and passed it on to King Henry V of England through Katherine once the French king passed away.  Who could object to the possibility of being King of France whilst already holding the title of King of England? Absolutely no one, so King Henry V accepted the terms and decided to marry the fair Catherine.   

Marriage of Katherine of Valois and Henry V

Innocent Wife

 As I already mentioned before, Katherine went into the marriage with all the naivete expected of a young girl of 19 who had no life experience.  She believed at first that her husband the king really did care for her, but it was mostly in her imagination.  He was corteous, kind, but often absent.  Anne O'Brien does a wonderful job depicting the feelings this innocent wife probably had concerning her place in court, in society, but most of all, with her husband.  We must recall that she was not only a foreigner, but also daughter and sister of those who were openly warring England.  There were those who openly despised and undermined her, and she was practically powerless to do anything as her own husband was often absent or busy, not to mention she was also learning the language!  The reader feels the alienation Katherine constructed around her, the hopes she had concerning her marriage, but we are also cold witnesses to her reality, while Catherine is still innocently yearning for something more.  She centered her hopes on a future child and how he (it HAD to be a 'he' as Henry would accept nothing else) would magically 'repair' their marriage... but it was not to be.  Indeed, after almost a year of marriage, Catherine became pregnant and Henry... Henry went to France to fight her brother, the Dauphin Charles.  Yes, King Henry V is definitely illustrated as a coldhearted, task-oriented, ambitious man who had no time for his young, needy wife, so this reader has no compassion for him.   However, Katherine's evolution into maturity is  shown well, she comes into her own as a person once she admits the truth about her life and the situation of her marriage.  It is a believable transformation from a star-struck teenager to a dutiful, conscious wife.

Alas! A young heir, another Henry, is born, making Katherine sublimely happy, but still thinking a bit about her husband.  A few months after his birth, she decides to visit Henry in France as he seems not overly anxious of returning to his family, or even meeting his son, for that matter.  Katherine goes and finds her husband sick with dysentery, making her concerned with his well being.  He thinks nothing of it and decides to trample on to another battle, but he never made it… *SPOILERS AHEAD*: and he died before the fight! Katherine finds out a few days later and although she was not a long distance away, he never took the time to actually send for his wife during his last days.  Katherine, naturally, is devastated not only by his death, but because even in his deathbed, he had no interest in seeing her.  He had sufficient time to deal with all the final details of his son’s future reign, but none to give his wife a last kiss. Total pig!

Captive Widow

Up to this point, I can honestly say that the story was captivating; however, the same cannot be said during this 'section' of the book.  We're encountered with a newly widowed Katherine, an extremely whiny, self-centered, Katherine who seemed to only think about the 'what ifs' of her life (of course, involving her husband) and her bouts of depression.  She's bored, she feels useless and powerless in front of her brother in law, the Duke of Gloucester, who's in charge of the realm until her son's coming of age.  And there are chapters and chapters and chapters of how bad she feels, of how inadequate her life is, how she's too young to have her life be over (Gloucester had instructed her to act the part of the saintly and pure Queen Dowager)... the author tried to entice us with *SPOILERS* an 'affair'  with the younger Edmund Beaufort, but their relationship seemed to be somewhat, childish.  They dressed up, kissed on the sly, gave each other heated looks, touched hands, and so forth.  And this went on for a year. Yes, A YEAR.  I (or any reader) could see from a mile away that Edmund was just using her continued naivete in trying to gain more power... and he wasn't even very smart about it since he never even managed to *SPOILERS* seduce her or anything.  Every single person she knew and cared for tried to warn her about her precarious relationship, but she seemed to immature to understand reality, she was blinded again by him.  At this point, I lost patience with Katherine and was rooting for Gloucester to finally end the ridiculous liason so as to get to the good part, to Owen Tudor.  Owen is introduced here as the Master of the Household, but as a silent brooding figure who for some reason (I can't imagine why) he disapproved of Katherine's going-ons with Edmund by giving her 'dark looks' and the like.  Foreshadowing, people!  

Again, I got the feeling that Anne O'Brien was trying to create some romantic and dramatic moments to grab the reader's attention, but sadly, it didn't work.  I for one, wasn't taken with Katherine's nor Edmund's characters; I identified more with the ladies in waiting who were gossiping about their improper behavior! 
Alright, so I won't say how Edmund finally got out of the picture, since that was the most exciting part, except to say that I was relieved!

Tudor Mistress

Ok, so Edmund's out, Katherine's with a broken heart (you have to read it to know why!) and sworn off men. [Yup, with a burning at an impromptu bonfire (candles) to symbolize the burning of her exes, a la Guy Fawkes, and all.]  We have a new, stronger Katherine who refuses to wallow in her misery, for oh, about a day.  It isn't clear how much later it was that she suddenly realized the existence of Owen Tudor, but it seemed as if about a week passed.  

Here we also experience a bit of sloppy writing as we have Katherine one minute hating all men after 'loving' one for about a year, and then (have I mentioned that a week passed?) she suddenly sees how she was incredibly attracted to her Master of Household who she's been living with for about eight years (or more) and never even LOOKED AT.  And not only attracted, but head over heels in love with. And realizing that her previous "loves" were nothing but immature fancies.  
Nonetheless, I decided to ignore all the sudden rushing of feelings because, after all, history is about to happen with none other than, a Tudor! 

So Katherine is painfully in love, but doesn't want to show it, although she does since all her ladies in waiting realize it, as does probably Owen since she stutters and blushes every time she's in any type of contact with him.  She asks her most trustworthy companion, what she should do about her newfound feelings and at first she says it's a bad idea because, well, he's a servant, and one of the traitorous Welsh at that... though they do discuss his incredible sex appeal so they decide she should finally go for it.  Katherine was naturally dubious (isn't she always), though at this point I have to agree with her since she was the QUEEN for god's sake! Repercussions! Gloucester! Her soon-to-be-king son! Her reputation! 

Although I knew she would ultimately 

become his mistress and later his wife, I truly enjoyed reading about her hesitation because I'm sure it was realistically portrayed.  No woman in her right mind would have just jumped into bed with a servant after not having any contact with a man for nine years, and a KING at that, while being under constant scrutiny of the public and her own household, as well as her powerful brother in law and son.  I believe Katherine of Valois was portrayed accurately as an insecure woman, mainly due to the circumstances of her conflicting life as a princess, as a neglected wife, and as a lonely widow, and the author grasped these points and masterfully embroided them into the story.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this wonderful Queen whose life decisions played such a decisive role in history, but also about the woman behind the role.  Anne O'Brien took the time to research and include historical accuracy so as to educate the reader, but unconsciously; it never seemed like a history lesson, but like the story of an exceptional female at the time of an exceptional historical point in time, which I'm sure was the intent.  Her relationship with Owen was a true pleasure to read.  

This quote alone redeemed the whole 'widow' section:

  "Better to live a day with you, dear heart, than a lifetime with the breadth 

   of the country 

separating us."

Awesome ending, unexpected, highly recommended!

The Forbidden Queen
Reviewed by Romina on Mar 21 2013
Rating: 4

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