Written by Victoria Best
It’s a brave woman who steps into Hilary Mantel’s territory these days. Comparisons are bound to be rife, but Queen’s Gambit can stand up to them. The one thing you can’t help but feel about the Tudor period is that it was made for narrative. I wonder whether the author and literary critic E.M. Forster had its changeable fortunes in mind when he said that the two statements, ‘The king died’ and ‘The queen died’ only became a story when they were linked by causality: ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief.’ Though in Henry VIII’s reign it was a long succession of queens who died and the reasons they did so were murky and trumped-up even at the time.
Elizabeth Fremantle chooses to hop to the end of the tale and focus on the queen who gets the least press, Katherine Parr. Compared to her forerunners, Katherine was distinctly middle-aged: thirty-one when she caught the King’s eye and twice married already. Like most aristocracy of the era, her earlier marriages were alliances not love matches, although she had fondness for both her husbands. The last one, John Latymer, she has eased into his grave, her knowledge of herbs having hastened the end of an excruciating illness. The memory of her actions haunts her still, and makes her second guess her fate at every twist and turn: is this punishment or forgiveness she is receiving from her God?
When Thomas Seymour, uncle to the young Prince Edward and renowned Tudor hottie enters her circle of acquaintance she is rapidly lost to his charms. In fact, she is mad with desire for him, and when her lust is returned, it seems that she might enjoy a love match for the first time in her life. This makes King Henry’s advances all the more unwelcome. Henry is by now morbidly obese, temperamental, vain, and slowly dying from a stinking ulcer on his leg. But he is the man who has the power to command whatever he chooses; after all, he has just spent the past thirty years contesting the most central and sanctified tenets of Christianity so that they may incorporate his whims in the marriage bed and his obsession with producing a male heir. Any man who can achieve this is a man to be feared.
And so, Katherine finds herself transported to the toxic atmosphere of the Court, where a band of ambitious noblemen plot and scheme for their advancement, ruthless after years of playing snakes and ladders in Henry’s fickle affections and scenting the nearness of his death. Katherine must find ways to manage not only the King, but his closest confidantes in matters of politics and religion. Katherine is an intelligent and competent woman, and trickier still, she has ideas of her own. The cause for religious reform, inspired by Calvin and Erasmus, enlightened by Copernicus, and dear to her heart in its desire for clarity and accessibility of the word of God, becomes a cause that she hopes to promote. But Henry’s feelings are turning, and the Catholics seem to be gaining the upper hand. When so many wives have been disposed of for less importunate reasons than failing to share the King’s religious opinions, Katherine finds herself playing a dangerous and potentially fatal game.
This is a powerful and gripping story, told in sumptuous detail, as rich and resplendent as the complex gowns that Katherine is forced to wear. Katherine Parr also solves the problem that seems to dog historical fiction lately concerning the need for ‘strong’ female characters that can make an anachronistic mockery of social history as it was actually lived. Katherine, in her wise maturity, is a woman to be reckoned with, a woman of scholarly learning and remarkable compassion. There were times in the story when I felt she was a bit too much of a paragon. But as Elizabeth Fremantle steers her tale steadily towards its gripping end, the pressures and the dangers really get to Katherine, and even her steely resolve is weakened. The ending, heavy with ironic tragedy, is all the more powerful for it.
An atmospheric picture of a fascinating and horrifying era, this is a novel that you can lose yourself in, and a slice of history that is perfectly retold. I’ll certainly be reading the next one.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit (Penguin, 2014) 496 pages.
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