Review: Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle

Regular readers will be aware that I find it hard to resist historical fiction with a Tudor theme, even though I know that it is more likely to irritate me than anything else.  I am currently dragging my way through the final volume in Laura Anderson’s execrable Boleyn King trilogy and am genuinely puzzled as to why I haven’t given up on it.  So you can imagine with what delight I discovered Queen’s Gambit.  It’s good.  In fact, it’s very good.  Despite the hopeful publicity materials, I doubt even Fremantle herself would truly compare it with Wolf Hall but as far as historical fiction goes, Queen’s Gambit is very much the Waitrose to Philippa Gregory’s Lidl.  For the non-chess-players of the world (myself included), queen’s gambit is a chess manoeuvre which stages the sacrifice of a pawn to protect the queen.  The queen in this particular novel is Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s reluctant wife. Amongst Henry’s wives she is famous for her survival but in this novel, we see that it was a very close-run thing.

Katherine Parr was my favourite of Henry VIII’s wives.  When I was eight, my mother bought me a calendar of Tudor portraits for either my Christmas or birthday (the two are quite close together for me).  At the end of the year, we both picked one each to be framed.  She picked Anne Boleyn and that great lady still hangs above the fireplace in my parents’ house.  I picked Katherine Parr and I have every intention of reclaiming her at my earliest possible convenience.  I think I liked her best because she was the Good Stepmother, even though this was all long before I discovered the fun of stepfamilies for myself.  Plus, there is documented evidence that she was unwilling to marry the King so we can tell that she was a sensible woman.

Queen’s Gambit opens as Katherine’s second husband Lord Latimer is in his death throes and his end is not coming nearly fast enough.  He is filled with love for wife, a love filled with shame since he knows that his rebellion in the Pilgrimage of Grace brought her so much suffering.  It is a matter of public record that Katherine Parr and her Latimer stepchildren were indeed held hostage by the Catholic rebels to extort Latimer’s cooperation but it did feel like a bit of a stretch to state that Katherine had been raped by one of her captors.  Certain incidents from history do go unrecorded but I still struggle to believe that such a scandal would not have stuck to Katherine in some way.  Still more incredible was the idea that she had conceived a short-lived child by her rapist and that this too managed to remain a secret.  Still, wicked deeds are done in the sunniest and most peaceful of times, let alone when at war.  Katherine watches her husband die with regret but as she begins to flex the muscles of her new-found freedom, one senses that her vision of the future is not entirely bleak.

Via her marriage to Latimer, Katherine has custody of his daughter Margaret Neville, better known as Meg.  Fremantle writes Katherine as a loving and dedicated stepmother, again something which is borne out by her documented affection for Henry VIII’s children.  Indeed, Katherine’s only comfort when she thinks of the dark days of her captivity during the Pilgrimage of Grace is that her own abuse protected young Meg from similar treatment.  Still, Meg’s maid Dot knows that all is not well with her young mistress and so does the reader.  The narration is split between Katherine and young Dot and then is also shared with Robert Huicke, doctor to Henry VIII who is dispatched by the King ostensibly to examine the ailing Lord Latimer but in reality to discover whether Lady Latimer is likely to be free for marriage in the near future.  As it happens, she is so inclined but not marriage to the King.

Katherine Parr’s love story with Thomas Seymour is one of those which so very nearly follows the template of a romance – they meet, fall in love, plan to marry and then the huge obstacle separates them (literally, by that point Henry VIII was very fat), then they are finally reunited and can marry … if only Thomas Seymour had not been such an infamous creep.  As his one-time stepdaughter Elizabeth I remarked, he was a man of ‘much wit but very little judgement’.  Fremantle describes him in great detail as an overly-groomed cad and indeed he steps off the page so clearly that one could not help but wonder how an intelligent woman such as Katherine was taken in.  But then she would not be the first.  Indeed, after two marriages of duty, she could be forgiven for seeking her own pleasure.  After his humiliation at the hands of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII was in the mood for a wife who could take care of him and having heard of how Lady Latimer had nursed her husband, he decides he wants some of the same.  As Katherine parts from Thomas, knowing that she cannot escape Henry’s desire, she remarks that it is ‘God’s will’, since that of Henry and God are surely the same.

I felt that Fremantle’s portrayal of Henry in his final years was one of the strongest parts of the novel.  He sidles in to Katherine’s apartments, wanting to play the lover but then loses his temper when one the windows of the room refuses to close and slams it repeatedly and breaks the glass, terrifying Dot even while Katherine smoothly maintains her composure.  Katherine manages her new husband as well as she can, her patience remaining almost universally intact.  Dot is the only one who sees what goes on behind closed doors, the marks that Henry’s frustration leaves on her body as his ageing body struggles to perform, whipping him into a rage that he takes out on his unfortunate wife.  Fremantle pictures vividly for the reader a marriage that is for Katherine a feat of endurance.  She has to be constantly on her guard, always wary for a word out of place, a glance gone astray.  Yet, for a long while the marriage went well.  After all, Katherine was regarded as the wife ‘most agreeable to [Henry’s] heart’.

Again, Fremantle manages to explain this era of religious upheaval relatively clearly for the reader; while for some writers (*cough* Philippa Gregory *cough*) the Reformation is a mere back-drop for Henry VIII’s romantic entanglements, here Fremantle depicts Katherine’s zeal for reform without ever making her seem fanatical.  Katherine Parr was the first Englishwoman to write a book and in fact, she wrote two.  She reads heretical books, she meets with Anne Askew, she asks questions.  She puts herself in grave risk.  There are whispers about her past love for Thomas Seymour.  Even though her marriage to Henry lasted only a few years, it is true that there were several junctures when Henry might have very easily moved on to his seventh wife.  The panic that whips through her household is again written with great potency and as Katherine thinks to herself, ‘It is either him or me and it is not going to be me’, suddenly it feels as if we have a real insight into the woman’s mind.  Katherine was an intelligent woman who had never sought queenship.  She had loved another.  She had borne with Henry’s tempers and pains, cared for his children, been wholly loyal.  As he seemed about to turn against her, perhaps she did indeed consider how she might save her own skin.  The idea of Henry VIII meeting his end at the hand of one of his wives is a delicious one – nobody could say that he would not have deserved it.

Her fourth and final marriage to Thomas Seymour should have offered Katherine that happy ending that was so well-deserved.  From the very early pages, we know that she is a loving and moral woman who has had to endure far too many trials.  Alas, enter the young Elizabeth.  Seen through the suspicious eyes of Dot, the Lady Elizabeth is a manipulative little madam.  She turns up her nose at the loyal Dot as a mere servant and even worse tries to make Meg do the same.  Still, Elizabeth craves Katherine’s approval; she is still the little girl who has not been well enough loved and needs to be best beloved.  Again, it feels as if Fremantle has grasped a real understanding of Elizabeth.  Dot overhears Elizabeth justifying herself rather airily to the bewildered Jane Grey, she is not quite sure why she ‘lay with Katherine’s husband’ and certainly cared little for the man himself.  History has pondered for centuries about what truly passed between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour but in Queen’s Gambit, we see Elizabeth as like the scorpion who could not stop herself, it was quite simply in her nature.

I was ready to be impatient with the character of Dot, she seemed as if she would be all too similar to Derry Brewer in Iggulden’s War of the Roses series, the country girl risen to great things and dearly-loved ‘as a daughter’ by her employers.  Ultimately though, I liked Dot – she was a nice girl.  She liked stories.  She lusted very innocently after a boy.  She was loyal to Katherine and Meg.  She saw clearly.  This was no infuriating Minuette from The Boleyn King, she was a flesh-and-blood female.  It was entirely believable that those who knew Dot should become fond of her.  When Katherine advised Dot’s husband that if he mistreated her, Katherine would personally feed him to her dogs, as a reader I mentally applauded in support.

I was less certain of what to make of Robert Huicke; Fremantle herself notes that there is no evidence to support her depiction of him as homosexual.  He is entirely refashioned here to suit the narration, he takes up a brotherly role towards Katherine, loving her dearly for her acceptance of his true nature.  Then he also falls victim to an attachment with the unworthy Nicholas Udall and there I did get irritated.  Partly this was because I’m never sure if it’s border-line offensive to insert gay relationships to add some kind of ‘spice’ or maybe even ‘political-correctness’ to the story – I think it’s important to be inclusive and to acknowledge that such relationships existed but given that I’m not part of that community myself I think I’m not really informed to pass comment on whether this trend is good or bad.  No, where I got truly annoyed was Ralph Roister Doister.

Fremantle has Udall putting on a play at court which is poking fun through a dangerously thin veil at Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s bygone love affair, which does not go down well with Katherine’s enemies or indeed the King.  Now, it is true that Nicholas Udall was a playwright.  It is also true that he wrote Ralph Roister Doister.  But he did not write it about Katherine Parr.  By the time he wrote it, Katherine was dead, so was Henry, so was young Edward.  Ralph Roister Doister was in fact written to do with Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, because now people could laugh about the ‘unenviable’ position of the unmarried wealthy woman, because Queen Mary was now safely wed.  I had to study an entire module on early English Citizen Comedy because my university course choices had gotten muddled.  It was probably my most obscure class but here it rather spoiled my enjoyment as I knew that there was no way that this could ever have happened and also reminded me of a very boring play that I had to read five years ago.  Don’t go see Ralph Roister Doister.  It is not worth your time.

History does have its habits – I remember Alison Weir remarking in her excellent book The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Henry’s wives are so often reduced to caricatures.  Katherine Parr is remembered as the nurse-maid.  The fact that Henry made her his Regent while he was in France, that he trusted her to super-intend his son’s education – all of this is forgotten.  In some ways though, history can also take its revenge.  Henry VIII is remembered most of all for his colourful personal life while Thomas Seymour, if anybody recognises the name it is as Edward VI’s naughty uncle, the one who had a predilection for young girls.  He attempted to seduce the young Lady Elizabeth and apparently put her off men for the rest of her life.  That is all that he is reduced to – you have to wonder what he would think of it.  I always remember Hilary Mantel’s musings in the final pages of Wolf Hall, that we re-use the dead, put words in their mouths, grant them deeds that they never did, opinions they never had.  We can be snide about medieval historians but the stories they wrote were no better than the historical fiction we like so much now.

Aside from the anachronistic literary references, which I admit I am probably the only reader to notice, Queen’s Gambit was a pleasure to read.  There are moments of intense insight into Katherine Parr – as a child, I learnt the rhyme that taught me that she was the wife who Survived.  It was not until much later that I learnt she lived only a year longer – her gambits which served her so well in chess and helped her to outlive her husband desert her when she finally succumbs to desire.  As she slips away, her love for Seymour having been sucked clean by his dishonesty, Katherine is fearful over which of her husbands God will make her walk through eternity with.  She prays not to be punished with either Thomas or Henry, longing once more to be with Latimer.  Historical fiction can never offer us many surprises in terms of plot but what it can give us is a fresh perspective on a familiar face.  In this novel, Katherine emerges as more than simply the blank-faced woman best-known for barely outliving Henry VIII.  Her thoughts on faith, on family, on love – she was a remarkable woman and it wonderful to see her story being sung.  Too often Anne Boleyn’s tale is told and re-told and we forget that the other wives had histories of equal power.  I would hope and pray that Katherine did indeed find her eternal rest and that after her death she was not further troubled by the husbands who were unworthy of her.

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Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle
Published by Simon and Schuster on August 6th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Literary
Pages: 424
ISBN: 9781476703060

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