Apparently, at this year's Hay Literary Festival, Antony Beevor suggested that "novelists ought to mark in bold type the bits they made up". He might be mollified by Kate O'Brien's forward to That Lady, which states firmly that "what follows is not a historical novel. It is an invention arising from reflection on the curious external story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II of Spain." O'Brien extracts from her reflections a novel that deals with a complex blend of political intrigue, love, jealousy, religion, and humour.
Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and owner of many other complicated titles, is a widow at the start of the novel, but still probably the most powerful woman in Spain. Rich in her own right, the friend and confidante of Philip II, she is able to rise above the scurrilous and unfounded rumours which suggest that she is the King's mistress. Her appearance - she is thin, not traditionally beautiful, old at 35 by the standards of the day , and wears a silk eyepatch following a fencing accident when she was a child - confounds the gossip about her; many believe her virtuous because they find her ugly. Ana, knowing she is both committing a sin and taking a significant political risk, takes as a lover the King's Secretary of State, Antonio Perez. It is not long before their affair begins to excite gossip and political intrigue, which adds to the already complex and personal political situation centred around Philip and his government of Spain. The lovers are denounced by Juan de Escovedo, a political enemy of Philip, who endorses his elimination. After Escovedo's murder, the King becomes aware of the true nature of Ana's relationship with Perez, and the consequences for the lovers are terrible.
Philip's intransigent desire to punish Ana and Perez is only part of the story. Buoyed by her wealth and status, Ana is overconfident about her power and her ability to manage Philip. Perez has similar faith in his invincibility. Both, eventually, suffer at the hands of an absolute monarch who has no need to invoke the law to imprison and torture. Ana is a faithful Catholic, and denies herself the consolation of the church while her affair with Antonio continues, but her story shows us that we need to beware of earthly powers as well as heavenly ones. At the heart of Ana's story is a rather modern theme - the right to a private life. Ana is a political figure, a landowner, a manager of estates, but she continually asserts that her private relations are nobody else's business; they dishonour nobody, they threaten nobody, because nobody has the right to be interested in them. This assertion will lead to her imprisonment and eventual death.
It is often said that historical novels are really about the period in which they were written, and in this 1945 work it's possible to read the Spain of Philip II, exhausted by wars, wealthy but unable to feed its people, and struggling to maintain its imperial conquests, as a metaphor for Britain at the end of the Second World War, especially Ana's reaction to the decay of her estates during her house arrest. Ana is forced to cede the management of her estates to the King's representative: "When Ruy lived and in the six years after his death that I was in nominal charge of Pastrana, this estate and its people were prosperous. Now it's being run by the government, and I can tell from looking out of that window, walking through my own garden - even if none of the people ever came to see me - that for some reason that no one can quite fix on, that is no longer true." The fear of the ascendant middle-class bureaucracy so common in novels of the interwar and war years is clearly indicated here. There are also echoes of Franco's autocratic rule over Spain: Ana's power is not threatened by increasing democracy but by a greater despotism. But the politics of the novel merge with echoes of fairy tales; Ana is imprisoned and, like the Sleeping Beauty, her house decays and her garden becomes overgrown.
There is also a personal reading of this work: Kate O'Brien based her characterisation of Ana de Mendoza on her friend, E M Delafield. At first it is somewhat hard to reconcile a one-eyed sixteenth-century Spanish aristocrat with the author of the Provincial Lady, but Ana's unfailing good humour, affection for her friends and (most of) her children, and endurance of suffering are all reminiscent of Delafield's biography. Kate O'Brien spent a lot of time with Delafield during her last illness, and perhaps her friend's stoicism inspired Ana's:
"Ana was feeling ill that evening, in pain all through her body, but this most exquisitely tragic-comic piece of news, which she refused to accept as more than some travelling man's fantasy, roused her to a mood of mockery that was rejuvenating and even analgesic."
This is a detailed and complex book; the political machinations of the key characters, the back story which must be conveyed to help the reader make sense of the present, and the many dramatic events make it a demanding read, especially for a reader who (like me) knows practically nothing about this era in Spanish history. But it is a rewarding book, opening up many ideas and images to the reader, who cannot fail to be charmed by Ana, her bravery and her wit, or moved by her eventual decline.