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Review: The Creation of Eve, by Lynn Cullen
Putnam, 2010. 392 pp. $17

When Sofonisba Anguissola yields to long temptation and has a passionate encounter with an artist colleague, she has much to lose. For one thing, Rome in 1559 is hardly the place for a woman to risk her reputation. For another, as a painter, Sofi has dared sign her canvases “the virgin,” partly out of pride in her dedication to her craft, partly to protect herself as a woman in a male profession. No more. As she says in the first sentence of this remarkable, compelling novel, “In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself.”

Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1556 self-portrait (courtesy Łańcut Castle, Łańcut, Poland, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the United States)

However, as the daughter of a petty aristocrat, Sofi’s not without resources, and her talent has received notice. No less a figure than Michelangelo himself has tutored her—which is how she met Tiberio, her lover, also the maestro’s student—and though she must now hide herself, she’s got a place to go. On the strength of drawings she’s made, Sofi receives an invitation from the court of Felipe II of Spain to teach painting to his new bride, Elisabeth of Valois, and be her lady-in-waiting. In that capacity, Sofi attends the royal wedding at Guadalajara, after which her adventure begins:

For this reason, I suffered to trundle these last two days over stony Castilian roads from Madrid, in a coach jammed with eight chatting perfumed Spanish ladies clutching their shawls and their small-bladdered dogs, with Francesca [her maid and chaperone] cutting her eyes accusingly at the pups each time we hit a bump. After a night four-to-a-bed with these ladies and their female companions at an inn along the way, I can assure you that the lapdog’s ability to draw fleas away from its owner is highly overesteemed.

As the quotation suggests, Cullen has given her protagonist a delightful, alluring voice and superbly re-created time, place, and manners, an atmosphere sustained throughout. You expect the novel to focus on feminist issues, notably the double standard regarding honor and purity, which the narrative handles with skill, in multiple facets and circumstances. As king, Felipe may have his mistresses, but if Elisabeth, who’s only fourteen, so much as smiles at the noblemen who fawn on her, look out. As a foreigner herself and a strong woman, Sofi becomes the queen’s trusted confidante.

Look out, again. Raising a foreigner of comparatively low birth to such a position makes enemies, and those who have been displaced put Sofi on notice. But they’re not the greatest danger. Felipe’s sister Juana, a marvelously insidious character, would like nothing better than to destroy Elisabeth and sees the upstart artist as a pawn in that game. Not only does Dona Juana question Sofi closely about Michelangelo, now under fire for his rumored homosexuality and his “degenerate” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which the Church is considering painting over (!), the king’s sister makes sure that Spain’s inquisitor-general asks Sofi about these as well. Further, Dona Juana seems to know about Tiberio, from whom Sofi has waited, in vain, for a letter declaring his love and willingness to marry her.

So “no—and furthermore” flourish here. I admire how Cullen weaves art, feminism, palace cabals, politics, and sex, moving confidently among historical figures. She casts Felipe II as a more rounded person than he’s often portrayed, capturing his stiffness while revealing his love for gardening and tenderness as a father. I’m also glad to know about Sofonisba Anguissola, having heard only of Artemisia Gentileschi as a female painter of the time, though the former came first by several decades. I like Cullen’s rendering of the royals, but the real show-stopper is Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth’s mother, whom the Spanish queen visits once in France. You understand immediately why, as a child, Elisabeth preferred her father’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, as a mother figure.

The way Sofi becomes privy to certain secrets sometimes stretches credulity, but not to the point of utter contrivance. The lone historical inaccuracy that sticks out concerns the potato’s presence in the royal gardens, which wouldn’t have happened then (if ever, in that era); but I know that only because I wrote a book about it.

More serious is Cullen’s assertion, in her afterword, that Felipe II is wrongly considered to embody the Inquisition, and that contemporary versions elsewhere (see, for example: Mary Tudor) killed more people. That may or may not show Felipe in a more favorable light. But to suggest that the Spanish Inquisition has an exaggeratedly evil reputation because of contemporary chroniclers relegates a great crime to a body count. Fernando and Isabella’s expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492 and the persecutions of converts afterward attempted to eradicate cultures that had enriched Spain. I think that outdoes Bloody Mary.

My long-time readers may recall that I reviewed one of Cullen’s more recent novels, The Sisters of Summit Avenue, set in the depression-era Midwest, a narrative about sibling rivalry, populated with excellent characterizations. Her authorial range impresses me; and though that story is closer to home, I actually prefer The Creation of Eve. Read both.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.