Reign of Madness
By Lynn Cullen
Juana of Castile is a young girl at the Spanish court secure in the fact she will never inherit the crown and also secure in her parent’s marriage and love for one another. When her world view is suddenly shattered, her romantic ideals disappear — especially those of marriage and her parent’s marriage specifically — and it leaves her with a more pragmatic view of life. She now understands that love and marriage are not one in the same and she beings to see all the more clearly where her life will lead and what it will be like. When Juana’s marriage to Philip I, the Duke of Burgundy, is announced she makes her way to a foreign country with little preparation and an even smaller hope of finding happiness in her marriage and maybe even in her life.
Juana and Philip’s first meeting is odd and while it’s not the most reassuring start, it’s not as bad as Juana imagined. The first few years of their marriage are full of lust, if not necessarily love, and the two young and naive rulers stumble toward a future she never imagined — the crown of Spain. With every relationship in her life eroding — her mother’s silence, her husband’s strange behavior, and courtiers deserting her — Juana struggles to control her jealous feelings for her husband as well as awful thoughts toward a mother who has grown cold. Her children become her only happiness and Philip becomes tortuous holding her at arm’s length, taunting her, playing with her emotions, and doing all he can to make Juana doubt herself.
Philip’s plans to steal the Spanish crown become clear to Juana all too late. When she finally beings to fathom his cruelness, both physically and mentally, her reaction is long overdue. Unfortunately, he has convinced too many of her perceived incompetence and Juana can do nothing to dispel the rumors or fight back. Everyone now sees her as a lovesick, heartbroken, and mad woman incapable of caring for herself and certainly not the Spanish empire.
Juana does not start out as a particularly sympathetic character. She’s dropped, at a young age, all the pretentions of happiness knowing with clarity that her life is not truly her own. It’s because of this attitude you expect her to see Philip for what he is — a childish man who believes he can take all he wants without consequences. His attitude and cruelty toward her are evident rather early on in the marriage but she becomes wrapped up in trying to keep Philip happy that she overlooks clear warnings from family and friends.
What I found most astonishing was her own inability to use the strong women present in her life, preferring to placate her husband to keep his rather unpredictable behavior on an even keel. I wanted to shake her. I wanted her to open her eyes and take control of her life in some way.
Having read another of Cullen’s book, The Creation of Eve, I knew to expect interesting female characters. Even if in this case that female character wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. But this may be a case of me trying to apply my modern view of things to a historically based story. Juana is a smart person but sadly understands what’s happening in her life all too late to change anything. You do feel for her and even at times when I was frustrated with how poorly she was dealing with her husband, I couldn’t walk away. I needed to know how her story would end and what she would do.
Cullen deftly mixes fact and fiction creating a portrait of a woman marked as mad but with a husband who fits the description better. It’s told very effectively, eliciting strong emotions and in the process telling a wonderful story.