That Lady is another book I’ve read for my Classics Club list, and a good one it is, too. In the Preface to the novel, Kate O’Brien states that it is not a historical novel because, although all of the events are real, the scenes between characters are wholly imagined. But I would argue that this is the very definition of a historical novel, with the proviso that the author attempt to preserve the true nature of the peoples’ characters, if they are known. That Lady is based on a curious interaction between Philip II of Spain and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, that historians are still struggling to understand.
The novel begins in 1576, when Ana is a 36-year-old widow. Her husband was Ruy Gomez de Silva, Philip’s secretary of state. But Ruy has been dead for several years, and Ana has been living a retired life with her children on her country estate of Pastrana.
Philip comes to visit, however, and tells her he wishes her to return to Madrid. He and Ana have enjoyed friendship and a mild flirtation, and he misses her company.
Ana does not return to Madrid immediately, but she eventually does in the fall of 1577. There, she becomes reacquainted with Don Antonio Perez, her husband’s former protégé and friend, who is Philip’s current secretary of state.
Although Ana has heretofore been a virtuous woman, she begins an affair with Perez, partially because she realizes she has done nothing of her own volition for years. This relationship eventually becomes a complication in a political battle.
This novel is primarily a character study of a fascinating woman and to a lesser extent of Philip II, whose poor government of Spain has stricken with poverty the inhabitants of what was at the time the wealthiest country in the world. It is also a very interesting study of the politics of the region of Castille.
At first, I found it difficult to grasp Ana’s character, but the novel centers on her strong sense of principle and protection of her privacy. It is also about the tension between her religious beliefs and her principles. That is, having committed herself, she refuses to abandon her lover when he is in trouble, even to save her soul or her life.
That Lady is a powerful novel about an unusual, strong woman who struggles against the restrictions of her life based on sex and station. I highly recommend it. By the way, the picture on the cover above is of a painting of the actual lady.