Mini-reviews: Three books, three queens

I have read three older historical fiction novels recently which I’ve decided to write about all in one post to avoid boring those of you who don’t share my interest in ‘kings and queens’ novels – and also because I’ve fallen hopelessly behind with my reviews again and need to start catching up!

The first book I’m going to mention is With All My Heart by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1951), which tells the story of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who comes to England as the wife of King Charles II. Although I’ve read a lot of other novels set during the reign of Charles II, this is the first one that specifically focuses on Catherine. Catherine is portrayed very sympathetically throughout this novel, beginning with her early days in England, trying to adjust to a climate and culture so different from Portugal’s, and later, when she discovers that she will have to share her husband with his many mistresses.

There is some overlap between this book and the last one I read by Barnes – Lady on the Coin – which is about Frances Stuart, one of the other women at the court of Charles II, but the two novels have a different feel, probably due to the very different personalities and positions of their heroines. One notable difference between the two books is that while major events such as the plague and the Fire of London are only touched on lightly in Lady on the Coin, they are given much more attention in this book and that made this one a more interesting read.

The second queen to feature in my recent reading was only queen for nine days: she is, of course, Lady Jane Grey and her story is told in Destiny’s Lady by Maureen Peters. The book takes us through Jane’s life from her childhood in the household of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour to her acceptance of the crown, her imprisonment and finally her beheading in 1554. Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon, is very much the villain of the novel, but remembering that it was published in 1972, I think that was the accepted view of Frances at the time – it only seems to be more recently that historians have started reassessing what we know of her again.

I have read a few other books by Peters and I complained that they were too short to do the subject justice. This is another short one, but as Jane Grey’s life was sadly also very short, I felt that the length of the book was adequate for everything that needed to be said. The pacing is better and there is not the same sense of struggling to squeeze a person’s entire lifetime into two hundred pages. Having said that, I would only really recommend Destiny’s Lady if you just want a brief overview of Jane’s life or are looking for a light and undemanding read set in this period. If you would prefer a more in-depth novel about Jane, you will need to look elsewhere.

Finally, I read The Queen’s Caprice by Marjorie Bowen, a book about a queen of Scotland this time. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a fascinating, eventful one and always a good subject for historical fiction. Bowen’s novel is a straightforward fictional biography of Mary, covering the period from her return to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her husband, the King of France, and her imprisonment at Lochleven. In between, there’s always something happening: a murder, a plot, a rebellion or a disastrous marriage or two!

This is an interesting look at Mary’s life, although as it was published in 1933 I think the style will be too dated for some readers and it’s probably not the best book to read as a first introduction as Bowen does seem to assume we have some background knowledge of the period. It isn’t a very flattering portrayal of Mary either – as the title suggests, a lot is made of her capriciousness and her tendency to think with her heart rather than her head, making poor decisions regardless of the consequences. I was never sure whether our sympathies were supposed to be with Mary or with her ambitious half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. I’ve read a few other books by Marjorie Bowen and while I thought this one was worth reading, it isn’t one of my favourites.

Have you read any books about Catherine of Braganza, Lady Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots? Which would you recommend?

The Lady of Misrule by Suzannah Dunn

The Lady of Misrule Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for just nine days in 1553, has been replaced on the throne by Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. As Mary establishes herself as Queen and returns the country to Catholic rule, Jane is taken to the Tower of London to await the trial which will determine her fate. Joining her in her imprisonment is Elizabeth Tilney, a ‘good Catholic girl’ who has volunteered to be Jane’s companion, and it is through Elizabeth’s eyes that the story is told.

Elizabeth and Jane are the same age, but that’s all they have in common. Jane is a quiet, serious girl, devoted to her books and her Protestant faith, while Elizabeth has a livelier, more rebellious personality and has had experiences of life that are very different from Jane’s. Being such incompatible people, living together in the confines of the Tower is not always easy, but gradually a bond starts to form between the two girls. History tells us what will eventually happen to Jane but The Lady of Misrule is a fictional account of the time she and Elizabeth spend in captivity wondering what the future holds.

I came away from The Lady of Misrule with a mixture of feelings, some negative and some positive. The negative feelings are mainly due to my own personal taste in historical fiction. Suzannah Dunn writes in a very contemporary style, using modern slang and exploring emotions, motives and relationships in a way that she thinks modern readers will identify with. I thought this style worked quite well in The May Bride, a domestic family story about the early life of Jane Seymour, but it irritated me this time. I do understand that the author writes in this way intentionally (she explains why in the Q&A on her website) and it’s not a result of carelessness or poor research, but I do prefer historical novels to feel more ‘historical’. As I’ve said, this is definitely just something that will depend on each individual reader’s own taste.

There were plenty of positive things I can say about this book, though. I have read other novels about Lady Jane Grey, but I liked the fact that Dunn’s approach is quite different, writing about just a short period of her life and from the perspective of someone who is meeting her for the first time. Although the girls spend most of the novel in captivity, they do still have some contact with the outside world and Elizabeth is able to relate to us some of the events that are unfolding beyond the walls of the Tower, but the focus is always on Elizabeth’s and Jane’s personal lives. Jane keeps herself at a distance which means that Elizabeth, who can be quite naive when it comes to politics and religion, often finds her difficult to understand and maybe because of this Jane is not an easy character to like. But this is as much Elizabeth’s story as it is Jane’s and as the novel progresses we learn more about Elizabeth’s past, her relationship with a much older man and the secrets she is trying to hide.

I also liked the portrayal of Jane’s husband, the seventeen-year-old Guildford Dudley, who is also imprisoned elsewhere in the Tower awaiting his own fate. It seems that the one bright spot in Guildford’s life is having the chance to speak to his wife when they take their daily walks in the Tower gardens, but Jane has little time for her husband and instead he and Elizabeth become friends. Guildford has been shown in a very negative light in other books I’ve read and it’s easy to forget that he was just a young man who, like Jane, had been used and manipulated by people more powerful than himself. It was good to see such a different side of him in this novel!

While I can’t say that I loved The Lady of Misrule, it was still an interesting read at times and I would recommend it to fans of Tudor fiction who are happy with a more contemporary approach.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sisters of Treason 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.

The Nine Day Queen by Ella March Chase

The Nine Day Queen When King Edward VI dies unmarried and childless in 1553, there are several claimants to the throne. One of these is Lady Jane Grey, who has Tudor blood through her mother, Frances Brandon, a niece of Henry VIII’s. Finding herself at the centre of a plot by her parents and the Duke of Northumberland (the father of her husband, Guildford Dudley), Jane becomes Queen of England…but only for nine days. Deposed by Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary, Jane is imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually beheaded. The story of Jane’s short reign and tragic fate forms part of this historical fiction novel by Ella March Chase, but this is not just Jane’s story – it’s also the story of her two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary.

On the same day that Jane married Guildford Dudley, Katherine was married to Henry Herbert, son of the Earl of Pembroke, but after Jane’s downfall the Herberts want to break their ties with the Grey family, so Katherine and Henry’s marriage is annulled. Later, Katherine falls in love with Edward Seymour but their secret romance incurs the wrath of the new queen, Elizabeth I, and Katherine finds that her own life could be in danger. Although the youngest Grey sister, Mary, is not such a central part of her parents’ plotting (possibly because she suffers from what sounds like a severe form of spinal curvature), she is still affected by Jane’s death and Katherine’s misfortunes. This fictional account of the Grey sisters is a great introduction to Mary and Katherine for those of us who know very little about them!

I had a good idea of what I could expect from The Nine Day Queen, having read another book last year by this author, The Virgin Queen’s Daughter, which I enjoyed. I knew it wouldn’t be a particularly ‘literary’ historical novel (you can probably guess that from the cover, though it’s not always fair to make assumptions) but not as light and fluffy as some. I can’t really say much about the accuracy of the book as I’ve only read one other novel about Lady Jane Grey (Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir) and no non-fiction beyond the few brief paragraphs she is usually given in books about the Tudors. As far as I could tell the story does stick to the basic facts, with some obvious inventions, as you would expect in a book that is fiction rather than non-fiction – and the author does use her Author’s Note at the end to explain where she has deviated away from the known facts.

The sisters are given such different personalities – Jane is sensible, studious and a devout Protestant, Katherine warm, compassionate and pretty, and Mary outspoken and impulsive – and with each girl narrating her own chapters of the book, the opportunity was there for the author to develop a different narrative voice and style for each of them. I was disappointed that she didn’t make the most of this opportunity and the voices of the three girls were very similar, so much so that there were times when I found it hard to tell who was narrating the chapter I was reading and had to look back at the chapter heading to remind myself.

I did like the fact that the story was told from the perspective of all three Grey sisters, though, and I was surprised to find that Jane’s death comes not near the end of the book as you might expect, but in the middle. The focus is then on Katherine and Mary for the remainder of the novel and I thought this was good because while Jane’s story is well known, the other two sisters have been largely forgotten by history and it was nice to have an opportunity to learn more about them both. Another thing that was surprising was the portrayal of the two queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I. In a reversal of what you would usually expect, Mary is portrayed as kind and considerate whereas Elizabeth comes across as spiteful and vindictive. They both felt more like caricatures than realistic characters to me, but it was interesting to see such a different perspective!

Are there any other books anyone can recommend on Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, either fiction or non-fiction? I’ve just received a copy of the new Elizabeth Fremantle novel, Sisters of Treason, from Netgalley so will be interested to see how that one compares.

Note: This book has also been published under the title Three Maids for a Crown.

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Alison Weir is best known for her non-fiction books but Innocent Traitor is her debut historical fiction novel from 2007 in which she tells the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Day Queen’.

Jane was a great-niece of King Henry VIII. Her ambitious parents never bothered to hide their disappointment that she wasn’t the son they had hoped for – however, they immediately began plotting and scheming, first to marry Jane to Henry’s son, the young King Edward VI, and when this plan failed, to have the order of succession changed so that Jane would become heir to the throne in her own right. As Jane’s story unfolds, we are shown how terrible it must have been to be a girl born into the royal family in the 16th century and used as an innocent pawn in her parents’ selfish plans.

Much of the story is told from Jane’s point of view, but there are also sections narrated by her mother, Lady Frances Brandon, her nurse, Mrs Ellen, and several others, including Mary I, who is shown to have more compassion and humanity than she is usually given credit for – until, of course, she makes the final decision that will seal Jane’s fate. The use of multiple narrators to tell the various parts of the story worked very well. One minor criticism is that the early sections which are supposed to be narrated by a four-year-old Jane are not convincing at all, but I was able to overlook this. The book does focus more on the female perspective, but there are also one or two male narrators, the Duke of Northumberland (Jane’s father-in-law, John Dudley) being one of them.

I have no idea what Jane was supposed to be like in reality but Alison Weir has created a very engaging and sympathetic character. The sad thing is that under different circumstances Jane might actually have made a very good queen. She was intelligent and well-educated, courageous and dignified. Unfortunately when she came to the throne she was only fifteen, not old enough or strong enough to be able to deal with the unscrupulous, manipulative people around her. I found the portrayal of Jane’s husband, Guilford Dudley, interesting too. He’s shown as a cruel, unpleasant person who treats his wife badly, but like Jane he was also a pawn in his father’s ruthless plans and had no more control over his own destiny than Jane had over hers.

“If you don’t cry at the end you have a heart of stone” it says on the front cover of the book. Well, I’m pleased to report that I don’t have a heart of stone – the final pages of this novel are unbearably sad and yes, I did cry. I knew from the beginning how her story would end, but that didn’t make it any easier to read when it came. Despite already knowing what the outcome of the story would be, I couldn’t help wishing things would turn out differently for poor Jane. I’m not a big fan of the Tudor period as a subject for historical fiction, but I had never read a book about Lady Jane Grey before and am glad that I’ve now had the opportunity to learn more about this important but too often forgotten historical figure.