At a glance, For a Queen’s Love sets itself up as an amazing book. Having made the story’s focus on the lives of the wives of Philip II of Spain and monarch himself, historical fiction writer Jean Plaidy should’ve had a royal flush. Instead, she presented the world with a lukewarm, overly dry view of one of Spain’s greatest monarchs.
Originally titled The Spanish Bridegroom, the novel falls flat with the simplest thing when it comes to writing and research—language. Firstly, the king was named Felipe, not “Philip,” the latter of which is the Anglicized version of the former. Therefore, since he is the king of Spain, it is best to refer to him as “Felipe,” though most English speaking writers don’t understand this. Yet this insult is but the first throughout the book that demonstrates the fact that Ms. Plaidy had no concept of the Spanish language. In a later chapter, Felipe’s son, Don Carlos—one of the few characters who is addressed by the correct name—is fawning over his fiancée later turned stepmother, Elisabeth of Valois. He decides to call her Isabella “because that’s the Spanish version of her name.” However, the Spanish version of Elisabeth is Isabèl—Isabella is Italian, not Spanish. Coupled with the fact that Isabèl of Portugal is also referred to as Isabella when it was Isabèl in her native land and adopted one, along with Maria Manuela being called “Maria Maneola,” Ms. Plaidy neglected to do basic research on the character’s names and their language of origin. Therefore, this erroneous decision on the part of the author and the editors prevented me from fully enjoying this book.
Yet I must confess that with the exception of names and their language of origin, the rest of the research was good. I enjoyed Ms. Plaidy’s elaboration on Felipe’s relationship with his duenna, Leonor, and his mistress, Isabèl Osorio, which she kept close to history. Additionally, I liked how she portrayed the infamous Juana la Loca by giving her a relationship with her great-grandson, Don Carlos, and how she showed his upbringing alongside his half-uncle, Don Juan de Austria, and half-cousin, Alessandro Farnese. Moreover, it was good to see that Mary Tudor, aka Mary I of England, was not made out to be the cartoon villain that most writers have made her into. Instead, England’s first female sovereign is presented as a sad figure whose physical appearance reflected the anxieties and frustrations that she faced internally. Despite her success in obtaining a husband, the tragic Mary could not fully have him due to her eagerness to rule and “cleanse” a land that had already slipped away from her long before her hysterical pregnancies and burning of “heretics.” Therefore, I commend Ms. Plaidy in these areas.
Yet the book’s title is misleading—it is about “the royal wives” of Felipe, but the last and perhaps most important one is left out—Anna of Austria. The story concludes with Elisabeth of Valois dying in childbirth, completely omits the temporary falling out of Felipe and Don Juan, and forgets to mention Felipe’s most well-matched and notorious wife. Felipe’s marriage to Anna was his longest, and they had numerous, though mostly short-lived, children, including the future Felipe III of Spain. Most importantly, Anna died in childbed in a similar, eerie pattern in the demises of Felipe’s wives, with the exception of Mary Tudor.
History notes Anna as a good queen, a loving stepmother to Felipe’s daughters, and a devoted mother to their children. Yet it is impossible to ignore the juiciest detail of all—Anna of Austria was Felipe’s niece and cousin. Her parents, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II and Maria of Austria—Felipe’s cousin and sister—were also first cousins. Therefore, this marriage was the latest and most defining moment in the inbreeding of the the Habsburg dynasty. The pattern of niece/uncle/cousin marriages would continue for another century, ending the Spanish line with Carlos II “the Bewitched.” Carlos II is Felipe’s great-grandson, and it would’ve been great if Ms. Plaidy could have foreshadowed the downfall of the Spanish Habsburgs with the poor health and deaths of Felipe and Anna’s young sons from epilepsy, a common complication from inbreeding. She missed a great opportunity to close on a riveting chapter and final note for Felipe. As a result, the character of the historical Felipe II—and the readers—were cheated of a decent ending and instead subjected to an overly rushed, uneventful death of his third, but certainly not final, wife.