The Wrong Sex

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

  • Isabel the Queen: Life and Times by Peggy Liss
    Oxford, 398 pp, £19.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 19 507356 8

Spain has had two queens called Isabel who had, by repute, little in common apart from a tendency to run to fat. In the age of Squidgygate, Isabel II looks like the better source of biographer’s copy – a selfish and libidinous vixen. Isabella the Catholic, who is Peggy Liss’s subject, seems boring by comparison: an exemplary wife and mother, virginal before marriage and chaste within it, who inspired comparisons with St Helena and the Virgin Mary. Yet the two Isabels are probably more alike than has been supposed. Both had to fight for their thrones; both had to contend with better-qualified pretenders; both were the political rivals of their husbands; both were the skilful or lucky survivors of times of crisis; and Isabella the Catholic (to use the name by which she has traditionally been known to British readers), without quite equalling her nymphomaniac namesake, appears, to candid scrutiny, sexier than she has been depicted.

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