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  • The Convex Mirror: A Queen, An Heiress and Biographical Blindness
  • Nancy Z. Rubin

“Transference, like every object relationship, is always ambivalent,” observed the psychoanalyst Charles Brenner. “While positive wishes may be more openly expressed than negative ones during an analysis . . . its opposite is always present and active nonetheless” (1995, 418). That same dichotomy exists for the biographer with regard to his subject. And for the reader of that biography. Only gradually did I come to understand that the reader’s reactions are often easier to confront than the writer’s. My sense is that writing a biography is like gazing into a convex mirror whose reflection contains clues—albeit unnaturally distanced ones—about our own unconscious conflicts. As biographers we tell ourselves that we are writing objectively. We seldom realize that we are examining our subject through the prism of our own ambivalences, through a psychological lens which, like a convex mirror, curves outward to highlight certain images and diminish others.

There is much that is uncanny in this. Transferences shift past relations into the present. In their own retrievals of the past, so do biographies. That a biographer should choose past figures who mirror the writer’s transference relations in her own life thus should come as no surprise. Yet often the parallels, not to mention the consequences, do surprise. Certainly I was blindsided. Shortly after I finished the second of the two biographies about powerful but otherwise dissimilar women, both of whom exercised their authority without hesitation, my own marriage dissolved over the issues of power, autonomy and professional accomplishments—real or perceived—that on a greatly magnified scale had fascinated me in my biographical subjects. [End Page 205]

In 1991 I published Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen. Seven years earlier, for reasons that were not then visible to me, I began an attempt to focus Isabella’s blurred historical images, which alternatively (and ambivalently) portray her as a saint, she-devil, or (at least in the terms of real-politik), a brilliant ruler.

Theologians frequently have asserted that Isabella deserves sanctification. She was Spain’s most devout Queen, a worshipper who herself often lived humbly in convents, a miracle worker and visionary who reformed Catholicism long before the Reformation. At least once a century—and as recently at 1990—Isabella has been proposed by members of the Catholic Church for beatification, the first step towards sainthood.

Even her apologists must deal with her irrefutably dark side. It was Isabella who, in 1740, reintroduced the Inquisition to Spain, and thence to Western Europe. It was Isabella who, a dozen years later, initiated the Expulsion, ousted Europe’s largest Jewish population from her country, seized their money and property and pitilessly scattered them to the four corners of the world. It was Isabella too, who, in 1500, reneged on the Treaty of Granada and expelled all Moslems who refused to convert to Catholicism. Church proceedings for sanctification typically discount flaws and shortcomings, but Isabella’s intolerances are deeply and repeatedly inscribed.

My own Isabella of Castile appeared in 1991, just before the Columbus Quintcentennial. For the following year, an international celebration had been organized to honor the explorer through a series of public festivals, movies and books. Isabella, as a sponsor of the voyages, had been assigned a central place. But a hue and cry arose, beginning with native Americans and radiating outward to the population at large, protesting the commemorations as ratifications of imperialism. Demonstrations, newspaper articles and media broadcasts followed. The federal government withdrew funds from most of its planned public events, and by 1992 the historical era of Isabella was deemed politically incorrect. [End Page 206]

I had spent seven years researching and writing my Isabella. Now I realized that the book would meet a very mixed reception. In the event, Kirkus Reviews praised the book as a “scholarly, limpidly written work” (1991, 208). The Westchester section of the New York Times said that Isabella reads “like political intrigue, a treatise by Sun Tzu on the art of war, a study in comparative religion” (1992, 5), while Booklist asserted that “Rubin does not defend Isabella’s less admirable actions but explains them in terms...

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