Reign of Madness

Written by Lynn Cullen
Review by Kristen Hannum

Veteran author Lynn Cullen, author of The Creation of Eve, chose Juana la Loca, middle child of Spain’s Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, to bring to life in this tragic cautionary tale. C.W. Gortner also wrote about Juana the Mad in his recent novel, The Last Queen. Interestingly, both Gortner and Cullen, after doing the research, decided that Juana’s diagnosis and 50-year confinement (at the hands of her husband, father, and son, all of whom preferred ruling without her) was specious. Cullen’s Juana wasn’t mad, as in psychotic or schizophrenic, at all. She was rather a victim of the manipulating and grasping men in her life. (It could, however, be argued that Cullen’s Juana exhibits symptoms of depression.)

Cullen presents her as a woman without a voice. As a child Juana is in awe of her mother and in love with her father; as a young woman, sent to a foreign land to marry a handsome stranger, she is consumed by her desire for him; and as a widow, now understanding how her husband betrayed her and how her father was not the man she had imagined, she agrees to sign away her rights to the throne – back to her father. Cullen shows Juana as kindhearted, passive, and childlike. She is a woman watching, not acting, not speaking out. Juana’s two sources of joy come from her secret love for Diego Colon, Christopher Columbus’s son, and her love for her children.

Not everyone can be Eleanor or Elizabeth, it’s true, even if she is born to the throne. Readers of this well-told tale risk feeling depressed for Juana – ironically the very mental ailment that so many historians ascribe to her.