By Nancy Bilyeau
I’m thrilled to share with you my interview with Christopher Gortner. I loved Chris’s historical mystery, A Tudor Secret, for the inventive uses he made of the last days of the reign of Edward VI. But Chris is also well known for his historical novels of famous women of the Renaissance: Juana of Castile and Catherine de Medici. His brand new novel is The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile.
I had a rather fixed view of Queen Isabella: warrior queen, devoted wife to King Ferdinand, sponsor of Christopher Columbus, and, because I particularly love the Tudor period, the mother of Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Chris’s book revealed another Isabella to me, and I highly recommend his book so that you can discover her too.
And now, my conversation with this amazing author!
Nancy Bilyeau: You’ve written about Juana of Castile and Catherine de Medici and now Isabella of Castile—all three of them are, in their different ways, controversial. You could even argue that they were in need of redemptive storytelling. Do you think that’s what drew you to them?
Christopher Gortner: Absolutely. I’m attracted to controversial women. It’s partly because I grew up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime and was taught censored history in regards to women; since then, I’ve discovered that most popular history is, in fact, censored. Historical women are often relegated to clichés: Juana is the mad victim, Catherine de Medici the evil witch, Isabella the devout fanatic. Yet these women were complex human beings. Like all of us, their contradictions define them. The women I’ve written about defied the odds and became far more than anyone expected. I admire their fortitude, their courage; I think they deserve to be re-accessed in light of their times and their accomplishments.
NB: I was surprised by how uncertain and difficult Isabella’s childhood was. What was it that surprised you most about her life in your research?
CG: That surprised me, too. I knew about her youth—that she’d been raised far from court in rural Arévalo— but I didn’t know until I researched her for this book how truly isolated her youth was. I also had no idea that she’d had such a basic education, not at all what you’d expect for a princess, let alone a future queen. But then, no one expected her to rule. She was slated to be someone’s consort, to live out her days in comfortable obscurity. What most surprised me was her tenacity; here was this young woman with almost zero preparation, who defied the odds and rose to become of history’s most famous queens, uniting her country under one rule—something no monarch of Spain before her had achieved.
NB: After all your research and contemplation, do you feel that you understand the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand?
CG: Yes, as much as anyone can, given the extreme separation of years and dependency on documents. They appeared ideally matched: their temperaments complimented one another, with Fernando’s daring offsetting Isabella’s more measured approach. It wasn’t a perfect marriage by any means; what marriage is? They had their difficulties and he was very much a man of his time, with a roving eye. But there is no question that he loved her more than anyone else, or that she both loved and understood him to his core. The proof is in the way they lived and, perhaps most telling, the way he transformed after her death. He became a different man. Some say that Fernando of Aragón, not Cesare Borgia, was the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince; given how he acted following Isabella’s passing, it would not surprise me. Isabella brought out the best in him. While he lived for years after her, he was never the same. Something inside him, the part that was so admirable, died with her.
NB: Do you think most people today assume Isabella was a strong woman without much vulnerability?
CG: Oh, yes! I must admit, I’ve been taken aback by a few reactions to the novel. Some people apparently are determined to see her as this ruthless fanatic without redeeming qualities. I even got an e-mail recently from someone accusing me of glorifying a mass murderer. They blame her for things she had no control over, such as the rapine of the Americas. However, if you read her testament, you’ll see that she never wanted the New World destroyed as it was; that occurred under her grandson, Charles V, and his son, Philip II. She was human and extremely fallible; I do not seek to excuse her mistakes, which were grave and caused much suffering, but to assume she was a monster because of them is simply misguided. Her outer strength concealed inner conflict; anyone who researches her in depth will see that while she could be obdurate, she was not innately cruel. I think she hid her vulnerability because she was a woman, ruling a kingdom; and that she privately worried over some of her more controversial deeds. Her hesitation of years in authorizing the Inquisition indicates as much. But Isabella wasn’t prone to displays of emotion; she comes across, especially in her later years— the years we’re most familiar with—as remote, extremely pious, cold. She suffered the losses of her children, of her health, and the fear of her leaving her kingdom without a capable ruler with stoicism; you never hear her complain. This paints a picture of someone detached, when in fact she was deeply engaged.
NB: How much did Isabella’s mother remind you of Isabella’s daughter, Juana? They both were believed to have psychological issues. Do you think those issues are exaggerated in other books?
CG: I think they may have shared a familial tendency for manic depression. Research also indicates manic depression can be triggered by extreme stress, which in Juana’s case makes perfect sense. There is no question that Isabella’s mother slid into a depressive state that made her a psychological invalid; in those days, no one would have know how to treat her, and what treatments existed for mental illness were barbaric in the extreme. Isabella has been called callous for confining her mother in Arévalo—Juana herself accuses her of it in The Last Queen—but in fact, Isabella may have actually been protecting her mother from being subjected to interventions that would have done her no good. How much of Juana’s own derangement was exaggerated? It’s hard to say, though I suspect a great deal, especially at the height of her struggles. I personally do not think she was mad when she first went into Tordesillas. She had odd proclivities but her years of suffering were doubtlessly to blame for how she ended up. When you read custodial accounts of Juana’s later years, you find chilling similarities to reports about her grandmother. Isolated, each haunted by their pasts, denied access to what they loved most, it’s not surprising.
NB: One of the things I love most about The Queen’s Vow is how suspenseful it is. Do you need to work hard to make these women’s narratives so gripping or do the stories tell themselves?
CG: It’s a combination of both. I have to work hard to recreate events that have been calcified by the passage of time; facts can be dry as bone, so as a writer I have to clothe them in sensation again, in the tension and immediacy of life. But the history is there: none of the events in my novels are invented. Isabella had an intensely tumultuous youth; she was always on the brink of danger. And her early reign was fraught with drama. Again, it’s a testament to her fortitude that she survived.
NB: Was it hard to write about the sexual preferences of Isabella’s father and half-brother, knowing that those times were so different than ours when it comes to understanding and tolerance?
CG: Yes and no. I went into this novel with the understanding that 15th century people are not going to see a gay man in the same way we do. Actually, all I needed to do was examine what certain religious groups today say about homosexuality to recreate the mind-set. But I hope I gave these men dignity; though we see Isabella’s half-brother, in particular, through her eyes—and she wouldn’t have understood his preferences—I strived to portray him as an individual. I hold deep respect for Enrique’s dilemma, for he was an innately gentle man and ill-equipped to be a king; he would have been much happier as an ordinary man, as he himself declared.
NB: I think that one of the hardest things for 21st century people to grasp is the religious mindset of the 15th and 16th centuries. Did you ever struggle to convey Isabella’s religious fervor?
CG: Again, yes and no. It may seem strange, because I’m both a very liberal person and not a religious man. But I was raised Catholic, in Spain during the final years of Franco’s regime; I was also educated by Jesuits. I studied for my first communion and participated as a child in Passion Week during Easter; to this day, despite my lack of affiliation with organized faith, I find myself entranced by the ritualistic displays of the Church. There were also women I grew up with, who’d been through Spain’s civil war and lost loved ones, and had turned for solace and comfort to religion; I drew on them to find Isabella’s fervor. I also have spent years studying the role of faith in the medieval and Renaissance world; these were people who believed in a retributive god, who believed in purgatory and heaven and hell; salvation of the soul was paramount to them. Their intolerance, their persecutions, are driven by the fear that God will strike at them personally for harboring heresy in their midst. It seems utterly bizarre but again, all we need do is turn on the television on Sunday morning and listen to some of the more extreme preachers, like I did for months while researching this book. You’ll find that same intolerance, the same fear, in a 21st century mind-set. As much as things change, sadly much remains the same.
NB: What about the anti-Semitism of the era? Was that hard to grapple with?
CG: Yes, of course. It terrifies me. But I understand where it came from, how it simmered, poisoned and corrupted; anti-Semitism was fueled by medieval society itself. I did find it hard to contend with; indeed, the most difficult chapters in the novel for me to write deal with Isabella’s deeds and thoughts concerning the Jews. I also had to move past the specter of 20th century atrocities to explore her particular anti-Semitism, which is connected to the era. Isabella grew up in a melting-pot culture where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived together for centuries, but the golden medieval age of co-existence had ended in Spain by the time she arrives on the scene. Still, she had loyal attendants who were descendants of Jews. Fernando himself may have had Jewish blood. She was not consumed by hatred for the Jews. Nevertheless, she believed Catholicism was the only true faith and that unless a Jew converted, his or her immortal soul would burn in everlasting hell. I believe she hoped for mass conversion of her Jewish subjects when she issued the Alhambra Decree of 1492, because to her way of thinking, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone willingly forfeited the promise of heaven. It goes back to the previous question about her mind-set; like so many of her contemporaries, Isabella feared a vengeful god and thus acted in righteous ardor through her divinely-anointed role to safeguard her realm from heresy.
NB: Do you think the lives of 16th century English royals have been told enough in historical fiction? Is that one of the reasons you write about women of France and Spain?
CG: I think as long as fresh perspectives can be brought to bear, there are still stories to be found among 16th century English royals. I myself write the “Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles”, which are set in later Tudor England. I choose to write about other countries and characters because that’s what I’m most drawn to at the moment.
NB: What do you think is Isabella’s most lasting achievement?
CG: That she united Spain and set the stage for a world-empire that lasted well into the 17th century. Without her leadership, Spain may have had a very different historical outcome as far as a global presence is concerned. To this day, Latin America bears the stamp of Isabella’s decision to send Columbus on his historic voyage, and the legal codes that she and Fernando revised and implemented are the cornerstone of Spain’s current system. She modernized her nation, through education, art and literature, and her dynastic ambitions. Both for better and for worse, she left an undeniable legacy.
CG: Yes, sure. I’d enjoy having brunch with any of my characters, as long as we don’t discuss religion J
Thank you for inviting me. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at www.cwgortner.com