The Queen’s Confidante by Karen Harper

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.

Shakespeare’s Mistress by Karen Harper

It’s a well-known fact that William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in November 1582. What fewer people know, however, is that just days earlier a marriage licence had been issued to William Shakespeare and Anne Whateley of the village of Temple Grafton. Historians are divided over whether Shakespeare was actually involved with two separate women or whether the first entry in the parish register was a simple clerical error. In Shakespeare’s Mistress Karen Harper takes this as a starting point to explore Anne Whateley’s life and the influence she may have had on Shakespeare’s work. Anne is portrayed as the woman Shakespeare truly loved while the other Anne, Anne Hathaway, is the one who is recognised as his legal wife.

The novel is narrated by Anne Whateley and divided into five ‘Acts’, like one of Shakespeare’s plays, and it really is a fascinating, entertaining story. As well as following the turbulent romance between Anne and Will (as he is referred to throughout the book) we also meet a host of other figures from the Elizabethan period including Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Wriothesley, John Dee, Richard Burbage, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Strange. The story is played out against a backdrop of historical events: an outbreak of the plague, Christopher Marlowe’s death, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the funeral of Elizabeth I and the building of the Globe Theatre.

The book appears to have been very well-researched and I appreciated the author’s notes at the end as it’s always helpful to have an idea of which parts of a novel are based on historical fact and which are completely fictional. I enjoyed reading all the scenes in which Will and Anne are going through the creative process of writing and staging his famous plays – a knowledge of Shakespeare and his writing is not essential, by the way, but would probably help. Karen Harper has also done a good job of attempting to show how Anne could have been the inspiration behind some of Shakespeare’s work but I was less convinced by the way the characters were constantly dropping lines from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets into their conversations. It seemed forced and unnatural, particularly when Anne and Will kept speaking to each other in rhyming couplets!

The dialogue, in general, has a modern feel, though it’s interspersed with words like ’twas and ’tis, in an attempt to make it more authentic. The language wasn’t always quite right but it didn’t feel ridiculous (which is always a danger with dialogue in historical novels) and I didn’t have a problem with it.

I did enjoy both this book and also Karen Harper’s The Queen’s Governess, which I read a couple of months ago. I really like the fact that with both novels she has found a way to approach the Tudor period from a fresh and unusual perspective. I think I would put her books on the same level as Philippa Gregory’s, so if you like Gregory’s historical fiction I would recommend trying Harper’s too.

For anyone interested in learning more about Anne Whateley, this website discusses the various arguments for and against her existence.

Note: This book has previously been published in the US under the title Mistress Shakespeare

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?