One of the things I like about Karen Harper’s books is the fact that although she writes about a period of history that has been covered many times before – the Tudor and Elizabethan era – she manages to find new and original ways to approach the subject. The first book I read by Harper, The Queen’s Governess, told the story of Kat Ashley, who was governess to Elizabeth I and an important part of the Queen’s life, but who is usually reduced to just a brief mention in other historical novels. Her next book, Shakespeare’s Mistress, was the story of Anne Whateley (probably a fictitious character) and her relationship with William Shakespeare. This latest novel, The Queen’s Confidante, is set in 1501 and follows the adventures of a young woman with her own candle making business who becomes embroiled in two historical mysteries.
Her name is Varina Westcott and she’s a candlemaker who specialises in making angel-shaped candles for funerals and who also has a talent for carving wax likenesses of real people. When Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to Henry VII, hears about Varina she secretly commissions her to make effigies of her dead children and also of her two younger brothers, the Princes in the Tower, who it is rumoured were murdered by Richard III. Elizabeth has always wanted to learn the truth behind the disappearance of her brothers, but if she delves too deeply into the mystery will she discover something she would rather not know?
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Henry’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, has just married the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, Elizabeth asks Varina to investigate on her behalf. Varina has lost a child of her own so she understands the Queen’s suffering and agrees to help. She is joined in her investigations by Nick Sutton, a courtier whose family fought against Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth and who is now trying to prove his loyalty to the new King.
The story is told in two alternating narratives, Varina’s and the Queen’s, though Varina’s forms the largest part of the book. I could see why it was necessary to have the Queen narrate some of the story because it allowed us to see things from another viewpoint and filled in some information that Varina did not have access to, but I think I would have preferred to stay with Varina for the whole book as I thought her character was better written than Elizabeth’s. I particularly enjoyed learning about Varina’s work as a candlemaker in the early 1500s. As a woman, Varina is not allowed to join the Worshipful Guild of Wax Chandlers and although she owns her own business, she is at the mercy of decisions made by men – she is even prevented from selling her beautiful angel candles until the guild members decide how to price and distribute them. Yet another example of how frustrating and difficult it must have been for a woman trying to make an independent living for herself in the 16th century!
The theory Harper suggests which explains the mystery of the Princes in the Tower was satisfactory enough. Considering nobody knows what actually happened or who was responsible for the disappearances, I found it no less believable than any other I’ve read. But the book’s other mystery, the death of Prince Arthur, is something I don’t know as much about – I’ve never given any thought to whether he could have been murdered and have always assumed he died of natural causes. Nothing I read in this book did anything to convince me that Arthur really had been murdered, though it was interesting to read Karen Harper’s comments on this in her author’s note.
I’ve enjoyed all three of the books I’ve read by Harper, but this one is my least favourite. I just found it too hard to accept the idea of the Queen of England asking a candlemaker to act as an undercover detective. Also, as someone who believes Richard III has been unfairly treated by history, I didn’t like the fact that he and his supporters are viewed as villains by most of the characters in the story and this meant I enjoyed the book less than I might otherwise have done. I admit that I’m biased though, and this probably wouldn’t be a problem at all for readers less familiar with the period than I am and who haven’t already formed their own opinions of the historical figures involved!
Note: The US title of this book is Mistress of Mourning.