The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

The Queen’s Governess is yet another historical fiction novel set during the Tudor period, but although the story is a familiar one it is told from a different perspective: that of Kat Ashley, the governess of Elizabeth I.

Born Katherine Champernowne, the daughter of a beekeeper from Devon, Kat comes to the attention of Thomas Cromwell who brings her to court to spy for him in the household of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. When Anne finds herself on trial for treason, adultery and incest, Kat vows to take care of her daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. Much more than just a governess, Kat becomes Elizabeth’s friend, advisor and mother figure. The fates of Kat and her beloved husband, John Ashley, become tied with the princess’s and they are forced to endure exile and imprisonment before Elizabeth is finally crowned.

So much has been written about the Tudor period that I’m sure it must be getting very difficult for historical fiction authors to find an original way to approach the subject. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of the Tudors will probably recognise many of the characters and events in this book. Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and all six of his wives are here, along with Thomas Cromwell, the Seymours, the Dudleys and Mary I. It’s the choice of Kat Ashley as narrator that helps to keep things new and interesting. I’m not sure if there have been any other novels about Kat, but this is certainly the first one I’ve ever been aware of and it made a refreshing change to read about a lesser-known historical figure from the period.

Telling the story from Kat’s perspective does have its disadvantages though. It seems that not much is actually known about her, and although she was obviously an important part of Elizabeth’s life she appears to have had very little direct influence on the course of history. The result of this is that for much of the book Kat is an observer, describing births, deaths, executions and other significant events of the Tudor court, rather than playing a major role in any of these historical moments.

However, I do think Karen Harper has done a good job in taking the known facts of Kat’s life and fleshing out her character, using her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. The book includes an author’s note explaining how much is fact and how much is fiction, and it does seem that the novel has been well researched and that she has done her best to make it as accurate as possible, even down to the choice of spellings of people’s names.

While I was reading this book I kept thinking that it felt very similar to Philippa Gregory’s Tudor court novels and I’d have no hesitation in recommending The Queen’s Governess to Gregory fans, as well as to anyone interested in Tudor history in general. I’ll probably read more of Karen Harper’s work in the future.

Have you read any Tudor novels told from an unusual perspective?