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“The Forbidden Queen” by Anne O’Brien

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Why do queens vanish in history? Their names get blown out of the windows of the stately, yet draughty rooms of history books. As if once their duty of bearing children—sons!—has been performed they become surplus to history and historians. Katherine of Valois has similar fate, despite the fact that she’s the mother of Henry VI, who in his turn is one of the sides in the War of the Roses.

We’ve all read about Henry V and his legendary conquests in northern France. He had only one wife—Katherine of Valois—before dying at the age of 36. His wife gave him an heir, Henry VI, whom he also know from history books. Yet, until recently I’ve heard nothing of Katherine of Valois. But she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s caught the eye of a contemporary writer, Anne O’Brien, who’s taken to heart to restore Katherine’s life and achievements into the minds of 21st-century readers in her book The Forbidden Queen. There are a few medieval queens that never get mentioned at all.

The Forbidden Queen is written in first-person, from the perspective of Katherine.

I found that to be rather claustrophobic at times.

We follow her inner life as a neglected child and constrained, by religious upbringing, adolescence. We witness her hopes of love and intimacy as she becomes the young wife of Henry V and mourn with her as she turns into an ill-prepared Dowager Queen only a couple of years later.

Katherine knows very little of the real and political battles that are fought around her (or so we all told repeatedly) and as a result, we get hardly any historical background story. Battles get mentioned sporadically. Battlefields, that Katherine is stationed by with her husband, only serve to signify how neglected by her husband is poor Katherine.

And there it is the main problem: “poor” Katherine. Throughout the book, her thoughts are predominantly self-pitying, melancholic, defeatist, and downright dismal.

Her wedding day is depicted through her overhearing some vile gossip about herself and her dropping a golden cup to the floor.

On her first night as a wife to the magnificent Henry V, right before she loses her virginity she has this to say to her husband: “I have nothing to wear to be guest of honour of a tournament.”

After the death of Henry, Katherine is ripe for the picking from ambitious men in the English court. Three men get prominent place in The Forbidden Queen: Henry’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; Edmund Beaufort from one of the foremost families in the land’ Owen Tudor, Katherine’s household master.

Here too, we witness primarily Katherine’s doubts and insecurities on who should she choose. In my reader’s mind, the men in question remained ill-defined and unconvincing.

The real Katherine of Valois was born and raised in the lecherous and insane French court (her father was mad, her mother infamous for her “wanton lewdness”), then sent to a convent and traded off to Henry V for some peace in the Hundred Year War between France and England. She might not have had a lot of political swagger at the English court  (although she was Dowager Queen and attempted to make some important political and personal decisions) but she dared to challenge the medieval bounds and (allegedly, papers have never been found) marry the man she loved. For a medieval woman and a young, widowed queen that must’ve taken courage. I didn’t see that in Anne O’Brien’s Katherine of Valois.

I feel that the inner life Anne O’Brien has inhibited her Katherine doesn’t do justice to the real Katherine.

As it is, The Forbidden Queen is more a romance novel with historically named cast of characters, then historical fiction.

I’ve also found a few historical and time inaccuracies throughout the novel. The most notable one being the use of the phrase “in my good books” by Henry V. The phrase was first recorded in 1509, come 100 years after the events in The Forbidden Queen take place.

This is the first Anne O’Brien book I’ve read and, according to amazon readers, not her best. I’m unsure if I should give another of her books a chance. I’d be grateful for recommendations.

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