Review: Sisters of Treason, Elizabeth Fremantle

 Katherine Grey has been having a great few years lately – just a bit unfortunate that this comes nearly five hundred years after she had a fairly unhappy life.  Given that previous to around 2011, the only reason Ladies Katherine and Mary Grey had really only clung on to the historical record as Lady Jane Grey’s sisters, this is quite a weather change.  Leanda De Lisle’s book The Sisters Who Would Be Queen seems to have lit a spark that started a real old bonfire and so the forgotten Grey girls are creeping out into the limelight.  Alison Weir attempted to retell their story with A Dangerous Inheritance but it was all a bit … tedious.  I had better hopes for Elizabeth Fremantle after Queen’s Gambit but I felt like Sisters of Treason was a bit of a disappointment.

I have a strong love-hate thing going with historical fiction – I love history but I hate it when people who I find interesting are written badly.  I don’t actually mind if they’re made into a villain but I really do feel fed up when Philippa Gregory cranks out yet another book about where the women giggle and simper and flounce about batting their eyelashes.  The only way I got through The White Queen was because I had done my back in and the mental pain of reading Gregory’s dreadful prose was a comparatively pleasant distraction from the physical agony of a lower back in spasm.  Elizabeth Fremantle’s book is nothing like as dispiriting as anything Philippa Gregory puts out but given how much I enjoyed Queen’s Gambit, I had really hoped that I had finally found an author of historical fiction to admire.  It wasn’t that I hated Sisters of Treason, it just left no real impression.

Given that this is my third time reviewing a book about the Grey sisters, I feel slightly guilty retreading the plot of their lives.  Sisters of Treason kicks off with a bang with the execution of Jane and this scene was in many ways the most successful of the novel.  Jane is steeled for martyrdom and is far more composed than her mother and although it was perhaps something of a stretch to imagine a last-minute reunion before the axe fell, Fremantle engineers it in a way that is credible.  Less believable is Frances Brandon’s baffling francophilia.  Frances Brandon is another character who has gone through something of a personality transplant – rather than being the cold-blooded harpy who ordered her daughter to her death, over the past few years her behaviour has been re-evaluated more favourably and now she is a terribly good sort of woman who loved her daughters but was manipulated by her ambitious husband.  Quite why Fremantle chose to extend this re-evaluation by making her launch into French phrases mid-sentence was unclear.  Given that she only ever used simple phrases which the average non-French-speaker could understand, it did not feel in any way natural.  And every time the Grey girls referred to their mother as ‘Maman’, it grated.  I know that they could not exactly call her ‘Mum’ but Maman?  Really?

Katherine Grey
Probably by Levina Teerlinc

As with its predecessor Queen’s Gambit, Fremantle has done her research and stirred in a few extra real life people – last time it was a famous playwright and a royal physician.  This time, she has summoned up portraitist Levina Teerlinc and imagined for her a connection with the Grey family. The narration of Sisters of Treason was split between Katherine, Mary and Levina but I felt that the latter could have been safely dropped. Levina’s story did not catch me as much as Nicholas’ did in Queen’s Gambit, hers was the ancient work vs family debate that has plagued women since time immemorial but Levina’s family life felt ill-defined and vague.  Other than occasional flashes, even her apparent religious principles felt out of focus.  I understood Nicholas’ loyalty to Katherine Parr in Fremantle’s last novel and I believed in it.  It just seemed a bit of a stretch to give credence to the notion that Levina de Teerlinc would sacrifice her family’s well-being to run after the Grey girls, that she was so close to them that she was present at Jane’s death, managed to smuggle herself into the Tower to visit Katherine and befriended Mary too.  To be frank, what with her Great Artistic Talent, her Loyalty and Warmth etc, etc, Levina felt a bit too Awesome for comfort – she felt like a Mary-Sue.

My favourite Grey sister has always been Lady Mary and for me, the more effective parts of Sisters of Treason were those told in her voice.  Mary Grey seems to have suffered from some form of dwarfism and had a crooked back throughout her life.  It was intriguing to imagine her function for Mary Tudor; like a living doll, Mary Grey is called to sit upon the Queen’s knee.  She hopes to be excused from this when the Queen appears to be expecting a baby and it is with sullenness that she stumps back to her duty.  Mary is the Voice of Reason in Sisters of Treason – with her outsider’s eye, as someone who looks neither to marriage or renown, she sees to the truth of those around her and this is sign-posted early on when the departing Jane leaves no word for her youngest sister becaus she says that Mary requires no advice.  But all of that does not stop Mary from having a warm heart and being a dear soul.  The final section did make me want to rejoice for her.

I think though that what I found disappointing was Katherine’s story.  It felt jumbled – first of all there is the notion that she and her first husband were sexually active.  Then Fremantle introduces the idea that Katherine was actually bisexual and experimented with her future sister-in-law Jane Seymour (niece of the one who was Henry VIII’s third wife).  All of this does rather diminish her love story with young Edward Seymour.  Reading Katherine’s love letters to her lost husband in The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, I really felt for that poor girl who had loved, loved, loved her husband and the children she had by him and had been separated from them.  I felt as though Fremantle had read A Dangerous Inheritance and wanted to avoid repeating Weir’d book – she is not focussing on one of the most potentially compelling elements of her story and it just seems peculiar.  I do feel that Fremantle is a hugely talented writer and Katherine Grey’s life story has all the elements of an operatic tragedy but it feels as though Fremantle herself never quite believes in Katherine and Hereford as lovers.  He remained single for almost twenty years after her death – I think there can be little doubt that he loved her.

More than The Sisters Who Would Be Queen or indeed A Dangerous Inheritance, Elizabeth Fremantle seems to be telling a story about women whose very existence was a treason.  Mary Grey wanted more than to simply sit on the Queen’s knee.  Katherine Grey wanted more than to flirt and frolic.  They wanted to live, to love, to have a home, to be more than the simple sum of their family.  Mary Grey’s simple plea was to be allowed to keep the tiny crumb of happiness she had found herself – but by the simple fact of their royal blood, their sovereign could take no chances.  Yet, when the sovereign shows you no kindness, it is hard to resist the urge to rebel.  Still, the final chapters felt rushed, Fremantle skips huge chunks of her heroines’ lives and with this being my third book on the subject, it annoyed me even more than usual.  With Queen’s Gambit a hit and this is a miss, I think we shall have to call this a one-nil result so far for Elizabeth Fremantle and I shall look out for her up-coming effort on Mary Queen of Scots later this year …

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Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle
Published by Simon and Schuster on July 8th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, General
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9781476703114

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