The Borgia Bride
One of the greatest difficulties of translating real history directly into fiction is that the ending has already been written. Happy ever after or tragedy, the author must live with the facts.
Sancha of Aragon was the illegitimate daughter of Alphonso II, King of Naples, in an age when the children of royal lovers were acknowledged and politically recognized. As the heroine of The Borgia Bride, she is both royal princess and royal pawn. She is also a character of her times, when Italy was a conglomeration of small kingdoms and principalities and city-states as well as the theocracy of the Vatican. Through her eyes, the reader sees a fifteenth century political scene that could be considered chaotic by twenty-first century standards, but it is all Sancha has ever known and it is her reality.
Betrothed to an Italian noble at the age of fifteen, Sancha is introduced to sexuality without hesitation and without shame before her marriage. However, Count Onorato Caetani’s wealth and position is not sufficient to compete with the single most powerful family in Italy, the Borgias. To cement a more advantageous political alliance, the betrothal to Caetani is broken, and Sancha is married at sixteen to the thirteen-year-old Jofre Borgia, uniting the Kingdom of Naples with the House of Borgia.
Upon their marriage, Sancha and Jofre settle in Squillace, a small principality of Naples, but eventually they are brought to Rome, where Jofre is part of the family of Pope Alexander VI. Alexander, born Rodrigo Borgia, has a variety of children by his variety of mistresses, including the to-be-infamous Cesare and daughter Lucrezia. Jofre, recognized as another son of the pope, is actually the legitimate offspring of one of Alexander’s mistresses and her legal husband, but the relationship is enough to make Jofre part of the extravagant papal entourage, along with Sancha.
Sancha misses her Neapolitan home and especially her younger brother Alphonso to whom she has always been devoted. By the time she learns Alphonso is to marry the notorious Lucrezia, Sancha has learned only too well how lethal is the corruption of the Borgias. Married to one, she has also been raped by another and seduced by a third. She witnesses the worst of their evils, their brazen murders and profligate debauchery, but she is also a member of their circle and as such is powerless to do more than observe. She cannot even escape.
Had Kalogridis written Sancha’s story as historical romance, either by altering the real woman’s history or by creating an alter ego, much of the visceral impact would have been lost. Sancha is not always a sympathetic character, by the contemporary reader’s standards, but she is an honest one.
Readers more familiar with British and American history may find themselves less comfortable in the Italian setting, but it’s a fascinating one and Kalogridis’ book is well worth the effort to sift through the details. (Kalogridis provides family trees and maps.) The Renaissance Papacy was in the ascendant and almost invincible in a Europe where religious faith and orthodoxy held political sway, a very different world from ours.
That is Kalogridis’ greatest achievement – she never imposes contemporary morality onto Sancha. In some ways, the reader may be appalled at Sancha’s acceptance of what she acknowledges to be corruption. In some cases, she rationalizes; in other cases she simply gives in to her emotions, such as her sexual desire for Cesare Borgia, whom she knows to be a cold-blooded killer. But this is also the greatest weakness in the book, that the reader has much more difficulty establishing a deep identity with the character.
The other weakness is that despite the important history that forms the context, Kalogridis maintains a narrow focus on the Borgia scandals that impact Sancha rather than the events that would shape the world. In that sense, Kalogridis has not written a story of the caliber of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent or even Cecelia Holland’s Great Maria. She tries to give Sancha’s experiences some wider historical significance at the very end of the book, but that’s much too late.
And that’s a shame, because The Borgia Bride really is a good book. Well written in the first person, it covers Sancha’s life from her early teens through early adulthood at the end of Alexander’s reign as pope. The author eloquently depicts many of the scandals, from the witnesses to the consummation of Sancha and Jofre’s marriage to the savage murders of and by the Borgias.
Many readers may simply dislike Sancha so much that they give up reading, but I think it’s important to remember that this is not a romance novel; there is no happily ever after ending to be achieved, earned, or even deserved. This is simply a portrait of a woman, a real woman, with all her many faults in the context of her time. Kalogridis couldn’t change that story, but she did an excellent job of telling it.