A Conversation with the Authors of ISABELLA UNASHAMED

Today, I'm speaking with the authors of Isabella Unashamed, an AU historical novel. For those who don't know what "AU" means. it's history re-imagined. It's the ultimate "what if?" for those who love history and want to explore what might have happened if things turned out just a little bit differently.

Isabella of Castile is known as Europe's first great queen. Renowned for her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon and birthing of modern day Spain, Isabella is also known as the queen who launched the Inquisition, completed the Reconquista, and expelled the Jews from her nation.  Not long after her triumph in 1492, her dynasty came apart and unraveled, and it was whispered by many that the Trastamara line was cursed. Her children either died prematurely or had horrible ends. Her most famous daughter, Catalina, became known as the ill-fated Katharine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII of England's unfortunate six wives. 

But what if Isabella had been wiser and not expelled the Jews—some of the very people who ironically helped put her on the throne of Castile? What if Isabella had had more foresight and had her successor be Catalina, who, although the youngest, was the most like her and the wisest of her children?  How would the power balance of 15th and 16thcentury Europe have shifted if Catalina had been the powerful queen regnant of Spain and not one of the 'merry wives' of Windsor?

With a joint effort Isabella Unashamed is written by two authors from very different cultural backgrounds who have nonetheless, joined together to create a haunting portrait of Spain's most famous queen, as well as a glimpse of what might have been had Isabella been wiser. 


The three of us had a great discussion about history, fiction, and how we judge historical figures through our modern eyes. 

Lissa: What motivated you to write this novel?

Helen R. Davis—I respect Isabella but I don't admire her. I have mixed feelings about her. I respect her stance on the Reconquista, but I wish she hadn't kicked out the Jews. I also wish Torquemada had not been in her life, or had been in it less. If he hadn't, she would have had a reputation mainly for good and not a mixed legacy. Thus, as with my Cleopatra Unconquered series, I decided Isabella should have a chance to shine as a bright light.

Carolina Casas --I have always found the Reconquista period fascinating and with Isabella and Helen and I were eager to delve into this subject.

Lissa: I have always had the same ambivalence when it comes to Queen Mary I. I intend for my next novel to be about her, but I’ve never been able to decide if I dislike her or pity her, or possibly some combination of the two. She had amazing qualities as a person and as a queen, but she did terrible things… Just like Isabella. Isabella has always impressed me as the female half of the “Catholic Kings” – a woman holding the throne in her own right and dealing with her husband with a level of equality almost completely unknown in that era.

H.R.D: That’s the thing. Either extreme paints a picture that is inaccurate. We need to give these women their dues and not judge them by modern standards, yet we cannot excuse them either.

C.CIt is very easy to see history as a black and white issue, especially this era. Isabella was a complex individual, a woman of her times who had no qualms about doing what was necessary to defeat her enemies, and justify it through her faith.

Lissa: And why did you choose this particular event?

H.R.D: I already covered it in the first stance. I also feel that this is a time period where our culture is under attack and we need to choose where we stand and not try to please both sides. 

C.C.: Curiosity. I have always wondered how big of an impact it’d been if Isabella had taken a different approach following the taking of Granada.

Lissa: That’s always a beautiful moment as a writer, when your imagination takes flight based on that wonderful question “What if…?”

H .R. D: That’s the same thing that inspired my CLEOPATRA UNCONQUERED series. I imagined her winning and not losing and a whole new world was born.

C.C: That is the wonderful thing about AU. It offers a world of infinite possibilities, and the people who engage in it, are the ones who do most research because they want to make it look as plausible as possible. It’s the same with historical fantasy -yes, there are supernatural elements, but there is also a lot of research involved in the making of that novel.

Lissa: Isabella is such an iconic figure in late medieval and early modern history, what made you become interested in her?

H.R.D: It was a book called Jewel of Castilla by New Mexico author Carolyn Meyer. It was a young adult novel that painted Isabella as a teenage girl I could relate to. I loved her interest in learning and could kind of relate to the suitors pushed on her but her wanting to choose her guy that she knew she was meant for. She was a 15th century woman, but the fact she chose her own husband in a time when women weren’t supposed to do that and she rejected all the others is one that shines to me. You go girl!

C.CShe was the first Renaissance Queen who set a proto-meritocracy which had never been seen before in addition to encouraging female scholarship and taking control of her own destiny at a time where women -even in Castile- were supposed to be subservient.

Lissa: Margaret Beaufort, grandmother of the man who would one day be Katharine of Aragon’s husband, was given a similar opportunity. She was told she could choose between two Tudor brothers. She said she’d pray about it, and the next morning, said that a vision of a saint had told her which brother to choose. I always wondered if that was her concealing her decisiveness under the guise of piety.

H.R.D: That’s not impossible but I do truly believe in her spiritual side of things and I believe in that aspect of human nature is timeless.

C.C: Religion and politics were intertwined back then -more so than now- and as such, you had people who were extremely devout, using their faith as a tool to justify their actions or, in the case of Margaret Beaufort and Isabella I of Castile, make their ambitions come true. It can be seen as deceptive. From their point of view however, it made sense and offered them a boost in their self-confidence.

Lissa: That’s something that’s always piqued my interest about Isabella – she was never able to get much of a formal education herself, but she had a deep and abiding respect for learning and saw to it that her own daughters had the classical education of princes. Erasmus was stunned when he saw the depth of Katharine of Aragon’s education – not only for a woman, but for any person.

H.R.D: Yes, Isabella was a pioneer of women’s education. As such, it would be somewhat ungrateful to hate her.

C.C: Isabella’s actions tell us a lot about her ambitions and what she hoped Spain would become. She wanted Castile to be its leading voice; the best way for Spain to remain relevant is by becoming recognized as the center of education, exploration, and other (then) scientific pursuits. Under Isabella’s reign, you had two notable female scholars who translated several classical works into Spanish, and taught some of their daughters.

Lissa: Do you think that Spain’s prosperity would have lasted more if she had not issued that edict that expelled the Jews from Spain?
H.R.D.: Absolutely. I have no doubt about it. 
C.C.: Definitely! The Jewish population contributed a lot to Spain, especially to Castile. They were amongst the most prepared and hardworking individuals who prior to their expulsion, had supported Isabella over her niece when she crowned herself Queen.

Lissa: And therein lies a puzzling aspect for me. As intelligent as Isabella was, she didn’t see how catastrophic this could be for her realm’s economy. She essentially removed one leg of a table without planning for replacing it or supporting the industries that would collapse.

H.R.D: Well, hindsight is always perfect. Not just for Isabella, but our own lives as well.

C.C: No doubt she was warned about what would happen if she kicked out a productive section of her population away, but by the time she’d taken Granada, she was so sure that god was on her side, and feeding on her spiritual insecurities, Torquemada and others warned her that if she wanted to keep this winning streak, she had to resort to more drastic measures. It was a clumsy move -one that seemed good at the time because of that winning streak but as time went on, Spain began to suffer the consequences of her actions. 

Lissa: What do you think was Isabella’s major contribution to the modern world and has your view of her changed since writing this novel with your co-author?

H.R.D. --I cannot condone everything she did, but my opinion of her has become more positive, although not entirely negative. Mainly I am pleasantly surprised and delighted to know she promoted women's education and she really was, for all her flaws, the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

C.C. –While researching her, my view of her slightly changed and I see her now as a complex individual, someone who wanted to bring her kingdom and her husband’s into the new world, but who was still a product of her time. If I had to pick just one, it would be embracing the ideals of Christian Humanism more fervently than any other monarch at the time. This went hand in hand with promoting women’s education, including her daughters’.

Lissa: I think a “bridge” is a good way to describe her. She wasn’t quite “modern” but she wasn’t quite “medieval,” either.

H.R.D: That’s another thing that needs to be understood about her. I love bridges between eras.

C.C: Isabella is the best representation of that transition. She was born at a time when tensions between countries and faiths couldn’t be higher, and people’s school of thought regarding that and gender were changing. She grew up embracing much of the old world but welcoming some aspects of the new.

Lissa: Are there any misconceptions about Spain or the time period you would like to clear up? 

H.R.D.: The machismo surrounding Spain was not from Castile, but from her husband's nation of Aragon. Castile had twelve queens regnant. It was also from Andalusia.

C.C.: Isabella was not an ignorant queen who was subservient to the church and a traditional wife. Her relationship with the church was turbulent from the moment she took the crown, and while she loved Ferdinand with all her heart, she was far from docile and never shied away from voicing her disagreements to him.

Lissa: What was it you think made Isabella love Ferdinand? How do you think she would have felt about what happened to Katharine of Aragon after her first husband’s death?

H.R.D.: Come on, what’s not to love? They were perfect for each other in so many ways. I don’t blame for going for Ferdinand! As for Isabella and Katharine of Aragon’s first husband, i think Isabella grieved over her daughter’s loss. That’s one thing that never changes regardless of era-- parents do love their children, at least good ones.

C.C.: She wanted to be an agent of Spain. She needed a strong partner who could help her rule and defend her crown, but she also wanted to be an agent of her own destiny. Ferdinand was handsome, smart; he had the love of his people and was his father’s favorite, on top of that, he was almost the same age as her.

I think Isabella felt grieved for her daughter. Both her and Ferdinand cared for all their children deeply, but they seemed to have a special connection with Catalina, so naturally they would have felt her loss the greatest. Catalina was still a stranger in a stranger land, and even though she had won her mother-in-law and most of the court over, she was now stuck in a political limbo. Isabella knew what that meant, which is why she worked hard to get her that papal bull.

Lissa: Have either of you been to Spain? If so, how did this help? If not, would you like to go?

H.R.D.: I have been to Castile, and it and Galicia are the parts of Spain I either liked or would like to visit. I don't care to visit Aragon or Andalusia, but if those doors open someday, I'll take the chance. I have been to the palaces mentioned in the novel.

C.C.: I haven’t. I hope to go there someday and visit all the iconic places I’ve read about and that my co-author and I wrote about. I imagine it will be like going back in time.

Lissa: I haven’t been to some of the locations in my books, but I feel like I’ve “lived” there through my characters, and I have this feeling that when I step into those buildings someday, I’ll feel like I’ve been there before.

H.R.D: Yes, I’ve not been to Egypt, but when I was in Israel, I got a feel for the era.

C.C: I have had the feeling ever since I was a little girl of three and my dad read to me the death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. I felt like I was there and when I had my first history lesson and my professor talked about England and Spain, I felt like I had been swallowed by a black hole and landed on those realms during the early modern period. It was magical, and while writing this book, I felt like I had gone back in time once more. And I have never been to Spain - I’d like to visit there someday, but reading about these places since I was a child, makes me feel like I’ve been there countless times.

Lissa:  Isabella is not as covered in historical fiction as someone such as Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, or Cleopatra. Why do you think she is ignored by historical novelists?

H.R.D.: She is a figure that is a thorny subject. People either go to the extreme of venerating her or turning her into a medieval Hitler. While this novel is not a hagiography, it doesn't shy away from her warts.
C.C.: There are still many myths surrounding her and people prefer to swing from one extreme to another, rather than see her as the complex figure that she was. This novel didn’t shy away from bringing to the fore her attributes and her flaws.

Lissa: Sometimes, the flawed characters are the most interesting characters! Of course, some of the things the people in the 15th and 16th century considered “flaws”, we consider character strengths. No one would blink today at a woman disagreeing with her husband or being firm and decisive, but those were not desirable traits in a woman of those days. I think the bold spirit of some of these historical figures led to historians viewing them with distaste for hundreds of years. We’re still living with the shadows of those perceptions coloring our history. 

H.R.D: Women like Isabella have always existed. Our modern ideas of gender equality didn’t exist back then, but that didn’t mean there were not spirited women. The Cleopatras and Isabellas make history books interesting. 

C.C: I know, right? I am interested in real people not caricatures of them, and Isabella is one of those people who get put on a pedestal or thrown under the bus. Isabella’s story is nothing short of astounding and as Helen has pointed out, there have been so many other women like her in history who became relevant because they decided to take the reins of destiny into their own hands and forge their own paths. 

Lissa: You are both from very different cultural backgrounds. How do you think knowledge of both helped shape this project?

H.R.D.: My background is English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish, so I could appreciate Isabella's spirit. I also felt I was in a land that, while warm and sunny, was the polar opposite of mine. I also love France -a nation Isabella didn't care for. In a way, this is an ironic twist of fate for me.

C.C: I am Hispanic. I grew up in Mexico and as a result I have been taught about these events since I was a child. This history is very close to me and the older I got, the more interested I became, especially in Isabella. 

Lissa: Here in the US, we usually only hear of Isabella in the context of funding Columbus’s voyage to the New World. (The old myth of her pawning her jewels crops up from time to time.) I became familiar with her as Katharine of Aragon’s mother because of my particular interest in Tudor history. It’s so sad that we miss out on learning more about this fascinating woman! 

H.R.D: I think part of it also is that, as I said before, she’s not a figure modern people feel comfortable with. 

C.C: I wouldn't know about basic education in the US except from what I hear from my cousins who've studied here and my college experience. It seems to me that it has to do more with simplicity and making things easier for students to understand. It is a real shame because young people are smarter than their teachers give them credit for, and I am sure many of them wish to know the full story.

Lissa: Tell us some interesting trivia about Isabella (like her perfumes or something like that, little things that will make her seem human, like Cleopatra bathing in donkey's milk).

H.R.D.: Her favorite scents were civet and musk. She also learned Latin. I find that interesting as it is supposedly one of the languages Cleopatra, the subject of one of my other alternate history novel series, did not speak. 

Lissa: Learning Latin in those days was essentially learning the language of knowledge itself. It was almost a “secret language” of learned men because it was a dead language, spoken only by scholars and churchmen. Women were starting to push their way into that world. 

H.R.D: That is so true.

C.C: Yes, and that opened doors for women of other social backgrounds less than a century later. 

Isabella grew up not having the luxuries a person of her station would have, as a result when she became queen, she always made sure that she looked the part. She loved to wear the finest things, and was up to date with the latest fashions, even imposing her own as well! But it is her desire to further her education that I find most interesting because it is what led her to have her daughters’ an education nearly equal to princes.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way people used fashion to send silent messages, not only about their status, but about their political leanings. And it particularly interests me how France – even when they were the “enemy” – always seemed to be the one who set the fashions.

H.R.D: France. A land I have always loved. That is an area Isabella would have debated me on, I am certain!

C.C: France was a realm synonymous with refinement and even Isabella had to recognize, that they were THE trendsetters.

Lissa: Tell me something in particular that you learned while writing the book. When I started writing about Anne Boleyn. I discovered things during my research that surprised me and changed my mind on some things. Did you come across anything like that?

H.R.D.: I did. I identify with her strong faith that I had no clue she possessed. I also found it interesting she gave so much to charity and no one was burnt at the stake while she was queen.

C.C.: Yes, I did. I found her pragmatism really interesting and a facet of her character that is rarely seen. She would say one thing and do the opposite, and she had no qualms about breaking sacred oaths if it meant protecting her family.

Lissa: Ooh, what you just said about “sacred oaths” fired my imagination! We all know that Katharine of Aragon defended her marriage to Henry VIII, swearing that she had never been intimate with her first husband Arthur Tudor. Do you think that she was “her mother’s daughter” in this aspect, and would have had the will to lie if it meant fulfilling her destiny to be Queen of England?

H.R.D:  I do think Katharine of Aragon was politically astute, but I do believe she told the truth about her and Arthur. Besides, this is Henry VIII accusing her. I will take the word of Katharine or Anne Boleyn over Henry any day!

C.C.: I think she was but being the youngest daughter and having seen her parents at her finest, she also wanted to live up to a stronger ideal than what was expected of her. You look at her siblings, and they were all expected to have bigger responsibilities -some of them weren’t prepared for that; Maria for example chose not to be a political consort, the eldest Isabel fell into a deep depression after her first husband died, and the third one (Juana) tried to rule but wasn’t up to the task. Catalina seems to have been very different and take on a more pragmatic approach like her mother, but she did take on her religious devotion more seriously, therefore I don’t think she would have told a lie of that nature.

Lissa: What is your favorite image of Isabella?

H.R.D.: The best image of her is “La Virgen de la Mosca”, where she has her hands on a book. Some have said that it is a depiction of St. Catherine, or her posing as this celebrated saint. It is simply iconic and beautiful, and a testament of her religious conviction.

C.C.: My favorite representation of her on screen has been by Michelle Jenner in the Spanish series “Isabel”. She brought out the best and worst of Isabella and made her seem human. My favorite portrait of her is the one where she proudly wears the Castilian crown and is holding the royal scepter. The look of her face perfectly exemplifies Isabella’s attitude -She was charismatic and approachable, but she was also a master politician who was good at her game.

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Thank you so much for the great conversation, Helen and Carolina! 
You can find Isabella Unashamed here.

1 comment:

  1. Just a clarification- Lissa, when you mentioned Anne Boleyn, I got confused and thought you had switched the focus.Anne Boleyn is the queen who contrinubued much to charity and saved reformers from burning in Ebgland,not Isabella. Just want to clear that up. I have also just finished an AU on Anne and that was fresh on my mind. Sorry for the mix up!


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