“Reign of Madness”
By Lynn Cullen
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 448 pages; $25.95
Meet the author
7:15 p.m. Wednesday. Decatur Library Auditorium, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, 404-370-8450, Ext. 2225, www.georgiacenterforthebook.org
By: Gina Webb
If Queen Juana of Castile and her husband, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy, were alive today, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World would have been hacking their phones 24-7.
Juana, who spent the last 50 years of her life locked in a convent, mad as a hatter, would have made especially juicy headlines.
They called her “La Loca,” and according to the history books, her behavior proved it. Consumed with jealousy over her husband’s countless flings, she was said to fly into fits of crazy revenge: She once set fire to her own clothes, threw a brick at her husband, and chased a rival through the palace to chop off her hair. When her husband died, she had his casket opened over and over so she could caress his corpse.
Or so they said.
Juana, who narrates Lynn Cullen’s new novel, “Reign of Madness, ” isn’t kidding around when she says, “It seems that an accusation is as powerful as the truth — once it is made, there is no denial that can completely erase it.”
The Atlanta author, whose acclaimed “Creation of Eve” (2009) introduced readers to the intrigues of the Spanish court during the reign of King Philip II, says her research for that novel led to a startling discovery: “The rightful queen of the most powerful realm in Europe had to be locked up because she was insane.”
Further investigation revealed a complicated story about a young woman who never expected to rule: As the third child of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand — famed patrons of Christopher Columbus — Juana, with healthy parents and two older siblings, stood little chance of inheriting the vast empire her mother called “the Spains.”
Juana was nevertheless well educated and expected to marry royalty, and in 1496, at 16, left Spain to be wed to the archduke of Burgundy, called Philip the Handsome. The match was a shrewd power play aimed at securing the wealth of Philip’s family, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and ensuring Spain a powerful ally against the French.
But like teenagers everywhere, the young couple promptly fell madly in love. They might have stayed that way had not Juana, through a series of unexpected illnesses in her family, moved up in the line of succession. From the moment she became queen, her husband schemed to take over the throne, and Juana’s jealousy became the most potent weapon in his arsenal.
At first, her initial doubts seem no more than what any girl might feel watching her new husband paw her ladies-in-waiting or disappear for days in the company of another woman.
“Not that I had firm evidence of his infidelity. No, all I had was a glimpse of his hand resting overlong on a lady’s neck when he pointed to a duck on hunt. Or the discovery of a long dark hair upon his collar. Or the sight of a lady turning away sharply when I entered the room in which she and my husband were together.”
Infidelity is nothing new to the daughter of King Ferdinand, who was famously unfaithful to Juana’s mother. But unlike Isabella, Juana can’t master her emotions. Her suspicions about Philip intensify, and she begins to exhibit the behaviors that earned her the nickname “La Loca”: Screaming tantrums. Teetering on the castle ramparts, etc.
None of it proof of insanity, then or now, but perfect fodder for her husband, plotting to usurp the crown of Spain, to discredit her fitness to run the Spains. She’ll have to be locked up for a while. To rest, they say.
Meanwhile, her beloved “Philippe” allies himself with her father, who plays an even more lethal game of thrones.
The Juana whose confessor we become in “Reign of Madness” is far from crazy. Insecure and dangerously vulnerable, yes: a people pleaser who makes it frustratingly easy for others to take what they want from her. She ignores warning signs to make others happy: When her father suggests he rule in her place for a while, she wonders, “What harm could there be in his managing the kingdom until I was ready to resume my reign?”
Of all the possible explanations Cullen presents for Juana’s failure to play the game and win — her reluctance to fight back, the superior strategies of the men who coveted her throne, even her hope that avoiding accession might reunite her with the secret love of her life — the most poignant is how alienated she is from her mother, both by nature and design. Scenes where Isabel finally shares with her daughter the sacrifices a queen must make, the realities of her own life at court, and lessons in the art of self-protection are all the more affecting for coming too late.
How I wished that Juana had mustered the queenly detachment to have her adorable, cheating husband dispatched when she had the chance. At the end of this cautionary tale, we understand better the reasons why Juana might have made the choices she did — they so easily could have been our choices, too.