Ah, another Tudor Era novel, with Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr at the helm. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle was an entertaining read that I truly enjoyed because of its emotional characters, amazing insight into the human psyche, and its excellent visual details.
I know many people are exasperated by the many novels stemming from this Tudor King’s life and reign, but there are so many stories to tell and so much speculation and intrigue to behold that stories keep erupting. With so many holes in history, historical fiction writers have plenty of room to use their imaginations. I have read some novels featuring Katherine Parr and am fascinated by her role as his sixth and final wife. I don’t think, as some do, that she is the least known wife as I’ve read other novels featuring her. However, I do feel that Fremantle has brought even more of her to light for us.
Parr was first and foremost a caregiver. In our modern times, she probably would be a doctor. She knows not only how to treat many ailments with her use of herbs, but she has an ability to see also what a person needs mentally in order to thrive. This makes her a fabulous mother, but also a wonderful wife. She knows what a man needs and desires in a mature way and how to care for those needs. She understands that if she puts her own emotions or needs “in check” in order to satisfy theirs, she many in the end gain peace of mind as well as success. She cares for the happiness of others and tries to see both sides of any human being or situation. With this motherly way of reading people, she finds much success with people both before and after she is Queen. She is extremely compassionate.
This compassion, and her caregiver skills, is most likely what drew Henry VIII to her in the first place. It’s documented in many places that he was selfish, intolerable, and had a violent, impulsive temper, but it’s also written, sometimes more subtly, that beneath this he was a child who most likely had fears and self-esteem issues. He wanted so badly to be respected and loved, which is why I think he most adored his third wife Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr. Both women were the wives with the least personal agendas and had more caring and patient natures. I think he felt a safety that he didn’t feel anywhere else around him in his conniving court. He found some solace, compassion, and care for the times that he was most self-aware of his faults and allowed his human vulnerability to surface. Just as Parr felt that Elizabeth (Henry VIII’s daughter who would become Elizabeth I) was misunderstood for her impulsiveness and blunt behavior as a child and teen, she also knew that Henry had this side to him also. Taking the children, including Elizabeth, under her wing as their mother helped to ground them, support them, and ultimately for Elizabeth would secure her being able to take the Crown as a woman. She also can be credited with nurturing Elizabeth’s personality along the way in order for her to be a better ruler.
All that said, Fremantle brings these topics out in the book to me. She shows the kindness that Parr carried in her heart even after losing two husbands, being raped, and having her greatest love (Thomas Seymour) sent away when the King asked for her hand in marriage. After the King’s death, she even endured betrayal by Seymour that was beyond fathom. Yet, she remained always forgiving and kind.
During her marriage to the King, she patiently and unconditionally supported him through his pain, his rants, and his abusive sex in their bedroom. She took time to hold intellectual conversations with him, something that he seemed to revere with a partner he felt on his mental level. I believe this led to her being able to be named Regent by him during his absence when there was war with France. This wouldn’t have been an easy thing for him to do and didn’t please many of the men surrounding him, of course. Fremantle showcased her ruling ability with the King’s counsel, and detailed her informed decisions. Her power was something almost unheard of for a woman to be doing in that era. Her strength and passion for England and her uncanny ability to see the big picture of everything and everyone, helped her rule England well during that time frame. I loved that part of the book and felt proud of her, as Fremantle showcased Parr’s determination and wisdom. I am always swayed by women in history who aren’t afraid to take on men when the cause is just and the decision right. Her ability to rule may have been a catalyst for Henry understanding that a woman could rule England and she was a force behind him dictating that Mary and Elizabeth, as the King’s daughters, be put in the succession. I think she taught Elizabeth so much more than we could ever know and as observant as Elizabeth was, maybe even more than Parr knew herself.
Also appealing to me was Fremantle’s underlying plot line that showed how Parr kept the Protestant Reformation at a slow and important trickle, knowing that with the King she needed to ride the fine line between his Catholic ideals inbred in him and his newfound Protestant devotion. Since he himself rode the fence, never wanting to declare himself fully either way, she knew how and when to speak to him of religion, while also educating herself on the Bible and the new faith. She was a high thinker, reader, and writer, eventually publishing books herself. Fremantle alluded in the book through various scenes of how she might have been assisting the Reformation’s agenda, but never accused Parr of ever being the trailblazer and master manipulator even when those around her such as Cat Brandon were pretty open about their Protestant beliefs and enjoyed taunting Catholic factions. However, I am sure all this group of women led to Elizabeth I’s strong Protestant faith.
I especially enjoyed the character of Dot, which was Parr’s maid from her former marriage that she brought to court with her. Being around the same age as Parr’s teen step-daughter Meg, who she also brought with her, they became like sisters. Parr’s ability to treat everyone equally no matter their social standing, sexual orientation, or bad habits really was a part of her enduring legacy. I think that Fremantle brought this to the forefront in her book. By creating a personality for Dot (not much in history is known about her), she also then brings her in as a narrator for us as readers, juxtaposing chapters with Dot’s thoughts, emotions, dreams and desires. We not only see the life of the noble playmakers at court, but we also see the life of the lower rung, much like Downtown Abbey or Upstairs/Downstairs. I have really been liking when people do this with books as we get to see how social standing stereotypes people in such wrong ways. Commoners with dreams and intellect who can never get to fulfill their dreams due to their lineage, and how being free in a country like America was founded on this class issue, are power themes for the times and one that Fremantle takes on by giving us a well-rounded view of the relationship between Dot, the staff, and the Queen.
I liked Fremantle’s fictional character of Huicke, who was the King’s doctor, her dearest friend, and a gay man dealing with being in love with a poet/playwriter who treated him poorly. His addition to the story was a nice complement to Parr’s character and sometimes we could get a better glimpse of her, through him. As she always put everyone before herself, Huicke put HER first and we see how someone close to her might have viewed her.
I think that all Fremantle’s characters were well-done and supported. Fremantle doesn’t write like Philippa Gregory, because her writing is even better as it is more lyrical. It’s more of a fictional tale than what Alison Weir might write, with less focus on accurate non-fiction and more spotlight on an entertaining story that is filled in with factual hypothesis. It resembles Hilary Mantel’s work, but is most like Nancy Bilyeau and Sophie Perinot to me. I enjoyed her writing style; Fremantle pulled me in and made me feel connected to Parr’s story. I didn’t want to put this book down day or night. I love history and like it to be accurate of course, but with a story like this, who cares about every tiny detail and its accuracy? I’m not saying it’s not accurate either and Fremantle addresses this at the end, but many people judge historical fiction like it should be a textbook! It’s fiction written for our entertainment and fiction lovers who like this time period will love it. Readers who like Downtown Abbey will love it. It’s better than Showtime’s The Tudors, because her descriptions gave a more accurate portrayal of King Henry, Elizabeth I, and the Brandons and is not pretentious.
Fremantle’s descriptions of her characters were absorbing and clear, as well as it didn’t surprise me that her fashion depictions were glorious and eloquent since she is a fashion writer and editor extraordinaire. Her debut from this magazine world into fiction was a phenomenal red carpet entrance and I can’t wait to read more from Elizabeth Fremantle! I’d say this 5-star book will be another on my top books of 2013 list.
Get this book now for Fall and spend a few nights cuddled up with it, with a mug of tea on your nightstand, and let Fremantle’s tale take you to a familiar time and place, but in a whole new way.
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QUEEN’S GAMBIT, Synopsis~
Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one Katherine Parr falls deeply for the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour and hopes at last to marry for love. However, obliged to return to court, she attracts the attentions of the ailing, egotistical, and dangerously powerful Henry VIII, who dispatches his love rival, Seymour, to the Continent. No one is in a position to refuse a royal proposal so, haunted by the fates of his previous wives—two executions, two annulments, one death in childbirth—Katherine must wed Henry and become his sixth queen.
Katherine has to employ all her instincts to navigate the treachery of the court, drawing a tight circle of women around her, including her stepdaughter, Meg, traumatized by events from their past that are shrouded in secrecy, and their loyal servant Dot, who knows and sees more than she understands. With the Catholic faction on the rise once more, reformers being burned for heresy, and those close to the king vying for position, Katherine’s survival seems unlikely. Yet as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love.
View the Official Book Trailer: http://videos.simonandschuster.com/video/2472116122001
Praise for Queen’s Gambit
“This is a superbly written novel… Fremantle is surely a major new voice in historical fiction and this book is the answer to the question about what Hilary Mantel fans should read while waiting for the final part of her trilogy.” – The Bookseller
“Wildly entertaining…lively, gamey, gripped with tension…one of the best historical novels I’ve read.” – Liz Smith
“Elizabeth Fremantle’s rich narrative breathes vibrant life into Henry VIII’s most intriguing, intelligent and least known wife, Katherine Parr.” – Anne Easter Smith author of A Rose for the Crown and Royal Mistress
“Queen’s Gambit is an earthy, vivid portrait of Tudor England seen through the eyes of Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr and her loyal maid servant. Elizabeth Fremantle has added a richly written and engrossing novel to the endlessly fascinating story of the Tudors.” – Stephanie Cowell author of Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet
“Queen’s Gambit is a lovely, sensual, subtle read, telling the story of Katherine Parr with both rich imagination and scrupulous attention to factual detail. After reading this historical novel, you truly comprehend what it would mean to be the sixth wife of a dangerous man wielding absolute power. Katherine is no selfless nurse here, nor religious fanatic, but a complex and compelling person who both men and women were drawn to. This is a very impressive novel.” – Nancy Bilyeau author of The Crown
“Beautifully written and finely observed, this suspenseful tale of Henry the Eighth’s last wife expertly conveys all the dangerous intensity and passion of the Tudor court.” – Rachel Hore, author of A Place of Secrets
“With a painter’s eye for detail, Fremantle brings the dazzling, dangerous Tudor court to life and sheds an intriguing new light on Katherine Parr, one of history’s great survivors. An enthralling tale of power and passion, loyalty and betrayal.” – Elizabeth Wilhide, author of Ashenden
“Fremantle…navigates Tudor terrain with aplomb.” – Publishers Weekly
“Sins, secrets and guilt dominate the landscape of British writer Fremantle’s debut…[her] emphasis is on intrigue, character portraits and the texture of mid-16th-century life. Solid and sympathetic.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Intrigue, romance, and treachery abound in Fremantle’s debut novel . . . . This compulsively readable fictional biography of the ultimate survivor is infused with the type of meticulous attention to historical detailing that discerning fans of Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory have come to expect in the Tudor canon.” – Booklist
Author Elizabeth Fremantle, Biography~
Elizabeth Fremantle holds a first class degree in English and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck College London. She has contributed as a fashion editor to various publications including Vogue, Elle and The Sunday Times. QUEEN’S GAMBIT is her debut novel and is the first in a Tudor trilogy. The second novel, SISTERS OF TREASON, will be released in 2014. She lives in London.
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