Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Last Queen

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner is a historical novel which gives a fresh perspective on the life of the enigmatic Queen Juana of Castile. Gortner skillfully weaves together the loose threads of fact and fiction into a rare and subtle tragedy. The story of the daughter of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, known to history Juana la Loca, is usually told with the emphasis on the passion between Juana and her faithless husband, Philip of Flanders. While Gortner’s retelling captures Juana’s passionate nature as never before, he also gives a fuller picture of her unique calamity by going beyond her relationship with miscreant Philip to the larger scope of the situations enveloping her. Until reading this book I had not fully grasped the fierceness of the political intrigues, the familial tug-of-war, and the basic struggle of good versus evil which rent Juana’s heart, mind and soul. Gortner realistically but sensitively paints her gradual descent into agony as she fights to keep herself from unraveling.

The Last Queen combines riveting action with a compassionate portrait of a woman haunted by mental illness. While some fleeting love scenes may not be suitable for very young readers, the gist of the story far surpasses the realm of mere sensuality but takes on the vast range of political, cultural, and spiritual issues that were at stake. Renaissance Europe springs to life in this carefully researched novel, replete with colorful details about the various historical characters. Of course, Juana upstages everyone else. The more wild the incident, the more one can be certain that it truly happened.

Particularly vivid is the portrayal of Queen Isabel; her personality comes through so strongly in the book so that I almost feel that we have met face-to-face. Other than the fact that she was a queen and a matron, Isabel reminds me of the great St. Teresa of Avila, possessing similar determination and luminous faith. Juana’s father Ferdinand is a complex character. One cannot help but love him like Juana does, which makes his later actions all the more disturbing.

Outraged in every way, Juana’s ordeal encompasses the full gamut of suffering so as to have universal relevance. Hers was a dauntless courage. Her love of her people caused her not to flinch from any sacrifice. I marvel at her tenacity and greatness of heart, qualities shared with her mother Queen Isabel, and with her sister Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England. Juana, like Catherine, had a long battle with the powers of darkness incarnated in a turncoat spouse. Like Catherine, Juana’s greatest love became her greatest foe and betrayer. Each queen had to endure disgrace and isolation for refusing to compromise on essentials. It is difficult to say which sister had the most complete immolation. They take their place with other tragic Catholic queens of history, such as Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, Marie-Antoinette.

(*The Last Queen was sent to me as a gift from the author.) Share


Emily said...

This sounds like a very good read. Thanks for reviewing it! I ran right over to my library's website and put a hold on it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, you have been 'blogging a lot about great queens and heroines lately--women who assumed roles traditionally reserved for men. Did they come to mind because Sarah Palin is so much in the news today, or have you been turning these posts over in your mind for some time so that this is all coincidental? =)

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, I have been planning to review the book about Juana for months. But I must say that I am shocked at the ignorance of history showed by those Catholics who think that women, wives, and mothers should never venture into the political arena AT ALL. Juana's mother Venerable Queen Isabel could have abdicated, and handed over the reins of power to her husband, in order to care for her nine children. But she did not. She held onto her authority until she died, for several reasons. I would venture to say that for a committed Christian woman like Isabel, being Queen of Spain was not a denial of her motherhood, but an extension of it. Perhaps the same could be said for other women who might be called to serve in political life in order to avert greater ills from besetting society as a whole.

elena maria vidal said...

But other than that, no, I have been writing about Catholic queens (and saints like Joan of Arc for that matter) since I started this blog a year and a half ago.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow! I can't wait to read it!!

God bless,

PS When can we expect a new Elena Maria Vidal novel?

elena maria vidal said...

The one manuscript is still with an editor and going through a lot of revisions. The Irish one I am still working on, more or less. Thanks for asking, Gette.

May said...

Dear Madam,

I am very impressed by your blog with its interesting historical discussions and insightful and charitable reflections.

There is a wonderful website you might like to look at, "Les Médecins de la Grande Guerre" at The site, run by a Belgian doctor and historian, Patrick Loodts, is a tribute to Belgian war heroes of WW1, with a special focus on the doctors and nurses. Many of the people discussed in the articles were not only very patriotic, in the true, virtuous sense, but also very devout, in a splendid, touching fashion.

The Belgian royal family were also very heroic in this period. The King, Albert I, personally led the Belgian army against a German invasion. His wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked as a nurse at the front, caring for the most severely wounded soldiers. The Crown Prince, Leopold, at the age of 13, volunteered for the Belgian army and fought in the trenches during his teenage years. One on occasion ( on a reconnaissance mission? ), he was almost hit by a bombshell but was rescued by his companion, an old volunteer who had joined the army at the age of 65, and who pushed the prince out of the way in the nick of time.

Well, I just thought you might enjoy this site.

Kind regards.

Dymphna said...

I was somewhat disappointed by the book. It makes Juana seem more in control early on than she was. The poor queen was probably unbalanced even before her marriage. Having said that, I prefer this to the ghastly movie which made Juana look like sex crazed maniac.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Hummingbird, that sounds fascinating.

I don't know, Dymphna, my impression from the things that I have read is that Juana was fine when she got married. Her parents would not have sent her off to Flanders had they thought she was mad. I think that perhaps post partum depression combined with all that she was going through with Philip pushed her to the edge.