Classics Spin Review: That Lady by Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien’s novel from 1946, That Lady, was the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. I had never read anything by Kate O’Brien before and had only added this one to my Classics Club list because I remembered reading some very positive reviews by Lisa and Kay and because I liked the portrait on the front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition. The portrait shows Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana, and Ana’s life is the subject of the novel.

That Lady opens in 1576, with Ana a widow of thirty-six. Following the death of her husband Ruy Gomez de Silva, one of King Philip II of Spain’s closest advisers, Ana and her children have continued to live on Ruy’s lands in Pastrana in the region of Castile. If you know nothing about Ana, as I didn’t before reading this book, you’ll be pleased to know that O’Brien gives plenty of detail on Ana’s background, explaining how she came to be married to Ruy Gomez at the age of thirteen, how she lost her eye fighting a duel with a page in her father’s household, and the origins of her close relationship with Philip II.

Early in the novel, Philip visits Ana at the Palace of Pastrana and asks her to consider coming back to Madrid. He gives several reasons why she should return, but it is clear that he misses Ana and her children and wants them living nearer to him. Ana is reluctant, but within a year she is back in Madrid and here she begins an affair with Antonio Perez, Philip’s ambitious secretary of state. Needless to say, this was not what the king had intended, and when Ana’s affair becomes public – and, worse still, leads to her becoming implicated in a murder case – she finds that Philip is not such a good friend after all.

That Lady is an unusual novel and at first I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it. The pace is slow and although there is a lot happening, most of it happens off the page; major events including the defeat of the Spanish Armada are covered in a few brief sentences, while dramas which directly affect Ana, such as the murder mentioned above and the circumstances which lead to it, are only referred to in conversation afterwards. The lack of action makes this much more of a character driven novel, which I’m usually quite happy with, but I also struggled to understand and warm to Ana as a character during the first half of the novel.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, I began to find Ana’s story much more compelling. I understood why her relationship with Antonio was so important to her, despite the disapproval of Philip and the public – because it was her own choice, something she was doing because she wanted to, and not because she had been pushed into it by her father, by her husband or by the king. I admired her for sticking to her principles and I was impressed by the loyalty she inspired in her young daughter, Anichu, and her servant, Bernardina. Ana also finds herself struggling to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and this is another of the novel’s themes, which develops through conversations with her friend, Cardinal Quiroga of Toledo.

I found it intriguing that in her foreword to That Lady, O’Brien states that this is not a historical novel, but an ‘invention’ based on the story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II, in which the outline of historical events is real but the words, thoughts and emotions of the characters are imaginary. I think I know what she was trying to say, but surely any historical novel contains an element of invention, otherwise it wouldn’t be a novel. Anyway, I was able to learn a huge amount from this book, not just about Ana, Philip and Antonio, but also about the political situation in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Most of this was new to me and the amount of detail made it quite a slow read, but an interesting one too.

I was left wanting to know more about the real woman, so I looked her up online and found a selection of portraits of Ana, with her distinctive silk eye patch (although it seems there could be a less dramatic explanation for the loss of her eye than the duelling story). I couldn’t find any other novels about Ana, but if you know of any, please let me know. And if you’ve read this book, I would love to hear what you thought of it – and whether you would recommend anything else by Kate O’Brien.

This is book 8/50 from my second Classics Club list.