‘Juana la Loca’, or Joanna the Mad, is the tragic title left to history of Juana of Castile and Aragon. Queen of the former from 1504 and the latter from 1516, Juana spent the majority of her rule and life imprisoned in a nunnery by her father. And perhaps most tragically, was left to remain there by her son, Holy Roman Emperor Charles I. While her story has not been much popularised in modern culture, the story of her sister Catherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII of England, has been portrayed repeatedly in the last four hundred years. In a valiant attempt to correct this, C.W. Gortner’s novel traces Juana’s life from a young girl in the heavenly though foreboding court of her parents and culminates with her imprisonment. It unravels the cruel ways in which Juana is betrayed by all those in which she places her trust, particularly her beloved husband, Philip of Hapsburg, and father, Ferdinand of Aragon.
Despite being a thoroughly rage-inducing novel for any person who has a shred of empathy, the true appeal of this story is Gortner’s ability to provide plausible motivations behind the ‘mad’ actions of Juana. One need only look to the many lists provided by the internet which detail the lives of mad monarchs to find plenty of evidence which proves her mental instability. The most prevalent charge against her of course is that which details Juana kissing her dead husband’s corpse. But Gortner scatters these pervasive accusations throughout the text and provides clever alternative explanations for the mad façade he claims Joanna created. In this respect, Gortner is a shining example of the right way in which to merge history with fiction.
Plot aside, the descriptions of Moorish Castile and Aragon, before they later merged to become modern day Spain, are truly magical and are darkly contrasted with the Tudor and Hapsburg courts. His creation of the infamous characters of Ferdinand and Isabella, known best perhaps for their funding of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America, is engrossing and his depiction of the reality of their marriage is genius. His storytelling has the ability to grip the reader, making them hope that despite the historical records a happier ending is within reach. His characterisation of Juana lifts from the pages and only reinforces the belief of the reader that it is in fact Juana’s own words we are reading. That we truly are reading the legacy which “I spent most of my days and endless nights writing…recording the events that had led me to this hour”.