This is Elizabeth Fremantle’s second historical fiction novel. I read her first book, Queen’s Gambit, last year and was quite impressed by it, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. It didn’t disappoint me – I actually found it a more compelling and enjoyable book than the first. Although Fremantle’s books are set in Tudor England, a very popular choice with historical fiction authors, it would seem that she’s trying to write about some of the lesser known female figures of the period, which is very refreshing. Queen’s Gambit was the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who is usually given less attention than some of the other wives, while her next novel – due to be published next year – is going to be about Penelope Devereux and should be really fascinating.
This book, Sisters of Treason, is the story of Katherine and Mary Grey – the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine-day queen’. The novel opens in 1554 with Jane being beheaded, having been deposed by her cousin, Mary Tudor, after only nine days on the throne of England. Jane is dead before our story really begins but she remains a constant presence in the lives of both Katherine and Mary Grey who are unable to escape the taint of treason. Under the reigns of first Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth I – neither of whom have a child of their own to name as heir – the Grey sisters have a strong claim to the throne, which means they will never be allowed to live their lives in peace.
Following Jane’s execution, the family of Katherine’s husband, Henry Herbert, decide to distance themselves from the Greys. Katherine is heartbroken when her marriage to Henry is annulled but she does find love again with Edward Seymour, the brother of her best friend Jane (referred to in the novel as Juno to distinguish her from the other Janes in the story). Queen Elizabeth is furious when she learns of their relationship and Katherine soon discovers just how difficult life can be for those who go against the Queen’s wishes.
The youngest Grey sister, Mary, was born with a form of spinal curvature which has affected her growth and as she is unlikely to be able to have children she is seen as less of a threat than Katherine. However, she is forced to undergo degrading experiences such as sitting on Queen Mary’s knee and being treated as a sort of pet or baby. Later, when Elizabeth takes the throne, although Mary is not in as much danger as Katherine, she still finds that the Elizabethan court is not a pleasant place to be.
Sisters of Treason is narrated by both Katherine and Mary (my favourite character) in first person present tense. This is something I don’t usually like but I thought it worked well here. There’s also a third viewpoint character – Levina Teerlinc, a friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother. In her position as a portrait painter who produces miniatures of various important court figures, Levina gives us a different perspective on some of the things that happen in the book.
As well as being the story of the Grey sisters, the novel also takes us through some of the major events of Queen Mary’s and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns. While both Queens can be cruel and treat their Grey cousins very badly, they are not just portrayed as complete monsters with no depth to their characters. Instead, the author tries to give some possible reasons for their behaviour and shows us the pressures they are under as female rulers in a male-dominated society.
They sit in silence for a moment, and something occurs to Levina that she had not fully realized until she articulated it – that for Elizabeth politics come before everything. That is how it must be if you are Queen regnant, your passions shut away in a box buried deep beneath the ground. It makes her think of her predecessor Mary Tudor, who struggled so with that concept, and she surprises herself with a pinch of sympathy for these women who have to fashion a cold, hard face to show to the world.
I have read a few other novels about the Grey sisters (The Nine Day Queen by Ella March Chase and Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor and A Dangerous Inheritance) but I still don’t think they get a lot of coverage in historical fiction compared to other figures from the Tudor period. Many people will have heard of Lady Jane Grey but may not be aware that she had two sisters and something that I liked about this book is that by beginning with Jane’s execution, Elizabeth Fremantle avoids re-telling Jane’s more famous story and instead concentrates on the other Grey sisters. However, Katherine and Mary never forget what happened to Jane and her influence on their lives is still very strong; Katherine inherits Jane’s Greek New Testament in which she has written “it shall teach you to live and learn you to die” and Mary often asks herself what Jane would do in certain situations. As Mary says to Levina near the end of the novel:
“In the scheme of a life, it is not the duration of something but its impact that is important.”
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.