Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Hampton Court Palace, Great Hall
Anyone who has ever traveled with me knows that I'm not one for sitting still on vacation. I am drawn to historic sites because I believe that visiting such locales is an enormously effective way to assure the continuity and relevance of the lessons the past has to teach us. The immediacy of Learning in Place that occurs when we contemplate the past in geographical context has the power to inspire.

In August 2013, Queen's Gambit author Elizabeth Fremantle wrote a feature article for the Wall
Street Journal about this very topic. She explained how she was inspired in her characterization of the
last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, by a visit to Hampton Court Palace:
History is all about us but nowhere more than in the spaces where people lived, and from them we can begin to understand the shape of past lives. Entire narratives can be sparked by the most insignificant details. A flower pushing itself up between two cobblestones, a spiral staircase tight as the inside of a seashell, or the faint square mark on a wall where a painting must have hung, all become freighted with imagined emotion.
Hampton Court Palace, Tudor State Apartments
Having received a copy of her new book Queen's Gambit from the publisher for review on this blog, it was my good fortune to correspond recently with author Elizabeth Fremantle. I've visited both Hampton Court Palace and Sudeley Castle, another site that was significant to Katherine Parr's life, and so I was particularly intrigued by the power that such locations might hold for a period writer. Given her ability to evoke a keen sense of being-in-Place in her narrative, I wondered to what extent historic sites have figured into Fremantle's inspirations (for better or worse), particularly Sudeley Castle and even the much-altered Snape Castle (Katherine's residence during her second marriage and the scene of an uprising during the Pilgrimage of Grace).

She responded:
Visiting historic sites is always a source of inspiration for me. There is a creative alchemy that happens with the knowledge that a character I am trying to bring to life once trod the same flagstones or looked from the same window. Even when buildings have been altered, like Snape, or destroyed altogether, like Sudeley, there is an atmosphere that is retained.
Banqueting Hall, Sudeley Castle

The ruined banqueting house at Sudeley is a magnificent sight and even though the existing house is not the one Katherine Parr lived in, and even the chapel has been rebuilt from total dereliction, she seems to inhabit the very fabric of the place.
There is a macabre story about the discovery of Katherine's forgotten grave at Sudeley in the eighteenth century, when some sightseers came upon an alabaster slab and, compelled by curiosity, dug beneath it to find her sealed, lead coffin. It is said that she had been preserved, with her skin plump as if she had died only the day before, giving those sightseers an extraordinary glimpse into the past, before the inevitable deterioration on contact with air. A few things were buried with her which are on display in the museum there: a lock of hair, a fragment of cloth and a tooth. This tooth, which looks to me very much like a dog's tooth, made me imagine it might have belonged to her dog Rig and that perhaps it was a keepsake to remember a beloved pet. Amongst the collection at Sudeley is a letter Katherine wrote to Thomas Seymour; it is one I know well and have read many times but to see her tidy hand and the fragile, yellowed paper with its careful folds allowed me to imagine her sitting and writing those tender and intimate words, helping her to live and breathe in my mind.
Tomb of Katherine Parr in St Mary's Church, Sudeley Castle
Fremantle created both complete backstories for some historical personages and original characters of her own imagining to people Katherine's world. The challenges of writing historical fiction fascinate me, and I am particularly drawn to authors like Fremantle who aspire to remain true to the past whilst also making stuff up. I asked her to weigh in on whether it was a struggle to balance reconciling facts from the historical record with the need to move a story forward in a coherent way.
To be honest I like the balancing act between fact and fiction and really Katherine Parr's story was a gift in that the period I cover in QUEEN'S GAMBIT has a natural narrative arc that works perfectly. The most difficult thing is knowing what to leave out because too much extraneous material, however interesting it may be, can slow down the momentum. My first draft was very different with long passages told from the perspective of Margaret Neville and extended flash-backs to the hostage incident at Snape Castle which were all cut – indeed about fifty pages went from the beginning – and I brought the character of Katherine's doctor, Huicke, more to the fore. He is one of the more 'fictional' characters in the novel, adding an important perspective on the court and the relationships Katherine has with both the King and Thomas Seymour. Characters like Huicke and Katherine's maid Dot, who is almost entirely fictional, can help bring the narrative to life, partly because they do not need to conform so greatly to historical record.
Fremantle has chosen to write about three far lesser-known women of history for the other two books in her series, which are due to be released in 2014 and beyond. Related to the balancing act of writing historical fiction, I wondered if she'd found it more freeing to write about lesser-known characters, at least in terms of not having an unwieldy historical record to integrate and navigate:
In fact the protagonists of my next two books, though less well known, are quite well documented, they have simply been historically overlooked.
Sisters Katherine and Mary Grey
The Grey sisters (the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey) who I write about in SISTERS OF TREASON, were sufficiently close to the throne – indeed many believed Lady Katherine to be Elizabeth's rightful heir – for their lives to have been closely observed and recorded. It is probably the fact that it was the Stuart line that eventually succeeded Elizabeth that the Greys' story fell into obscurity. Though thanks to an excellent biography of the sisters by historian, Leanda de Lisle, they are beginning to emerge.

This is the case with many women's stories; sadly, until the end of the twentieth century, historians simply weren't interested in the lives of women, except where they intersected with those of powerful men or in cases where they could be held up as particular role models of perfect biddable wives (Parr) or tragic martyrs (Jane Grey) or wicked women (Anne Boleyn). In the case of Katherine Grey there are one or two deeply touching letters she wrote which offered me authentic insights into her personality.

So I suppose to answer your question, there is always a historical record to navigate it is just more deeply buried in some cases.
Penelope Devereaux
It is true that Penelope Devereaux, the protagonist of the third book in the trilogy, is not a familiar figure; but she was the sister of the Earl of Essex and a cousin of Elizabeth Tudor and so her life too is quite well documented, though perhaps there is a little more 'wiggle room' with her than the others. The historical background however cannot be altered and all my novels revolve closely around the court with the Tudor monarchs at the heart of the story. It is these overfamiliar stories of Henry, Mary and Elizabeth that need to be approached in a fresh way, and that can be a challenge.

The inspirations and idiosyncrasies peculiar to writing historical fiction aside, Katherine Parr was a fascinating woman in her own right. She was the daughter of courtiers who had served under Yorkist and Tudor reigns and accordingly her education, experience and social position made her an ideal regal consort -- although Henry VIII certainly cannot be said in turn to have been an ideal regal consort for any of his wives!  Katherine brought diplomatic interpersonal skills to the throne that none of Henry's previous wives had possessed (or perhaps arguably had no opportunity to exercise). Katherine alone was able to forge relationships with each of Henry's children, even helping to restore previously-declared illegitimate daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession after youngest and favored male heir Edward.

Katherine had inquisitive and intellectual aspects to her personality which found outlets in her religious writings. She was in fact the first published queen of England in an era when being an author was unprecedented for a queen, let alone a woman.  Given that, I wondered what it must have been like for modern-day author Fremantle to get inside Katherine's writing and inspirational processes from centuries ago:
It was a gift really to have the voice of my protagonist in such an extended form and not simply in fragments of letters. There is a passion in her work and in her use of language and metaphor that I found utterly compelling and helped me to understand something of her strength, faith and intelligence, which I have tried to demonstrate in my fictional version of her.
Because Katherine was a brilliant woman both intellectually and in her ability to negotiate complicated social relationships, she of all of Henry's six wives "survived." By use of the gambits referenced by the book's title, Katherine out-maneuvered master chess player Henry at his own game, though just barely and at great personal cost in terms of her own happiness.

And yet this amazingly adept woman made some colossally bad decisions when it came to relationships with her last husband, Thomas Seymour, and with Henry's second daughter, the young Elizabeth Tudor.  Despite the disastrous outcomes, I personally find Katherine more endearing and relatable as a person because she made mistakes.  I wondered if there was ever a point when Fremantle, knowing how things would end up, wanted to scream "Don't do it, Kate!" However appealing a character that she might have been, I imagined that at times it must have been maddening for an author to work with the fall-out as Katherine's story unfolded.  Fremantle responded:
I agree with you that the contradictions in her personality make her all the more endearing and in fact it is that very feeling of not wanting her to do the inevitable that creates a tension and drama in the narrative. So in terms of fiction it worked incredibly well, but the challenge was to make her decisions seem to make sense in the context of her personality and that meant setting it up very early, giving her a side that could be rash and passionate behind her measured and controlled surface. In terms of her life though, it was a devastating and tragic flaw.
Fremantle's debut novel has been compared to the work of the reigning queens of British historical fiction, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, but I don't think these are particularly apt comparisons. To my mind the prolific Gregory excels at emphasizing the sensational in her books, sometimes sacrificing the integrity of historical fact on the altar of memorable and colorful characterization. Mantel has a distinctively intense narrative style and seems to strive to create masterpieces in every paragraph. Of her writing, she has said “....some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.” The down side of this embarrassment of riches is that Mantel's books are both entertainment and challenge, and that may or may not appeal depending upon your preferences.

Author Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle's writing style is more straightforward yet every bit as compelling in its focus and love of detail, and she is consistently respectful to the historical record. I believe that Fremantle's strengths as a writer lie in her ability to realistically and poetically evoke Place and Time whilst also remaining true to Facts, even the inconvenient bits of history that less confident authors might chose to skip for fear the messiness might disrupt their intended narrative. When you stand with Fremantle's Katherine even at the most mundane of moments, you are inescapably in her world, as this passage illustrates:

There is a bustle about the court as they make ready to travel. Katherine stands in one of the window alcoves in the western corridor, watching Lady Mary's wardrobe--a dozen trunks, which she had overseen the careful packing of herself--being loaded on to a cart below. It is a fine day and she is looking forward to leaving the heave and press of the city. A rotten stench is beginning to emanate from the direction of the jakes, the vegetable gardens are all but empty, and the rumor of plague hangs in the air--it is time to move on. She should be at mass but she wanted a moment alone and hopes Lady Mary won't be upset by her absence in chapel, though Lady Mary will doubtless be so intent on her worship she won't notice who is or isn't there. Someone will tell her--hawk-eyed Susan Clarencieux or vindictive Anne Stanhope probably--but she can always say she wanted to make sure the trunks were all correctly loaded.

I will admit to some hesitation in embracing the back-story for the character of Huicke, Katherine's physician friend and confidant. (CAUTION: skip this paragraph if you wish to remain spoiler-free, as it contains a wee bit of spoilage). My hesitation comes not because it didn't work within the story, but because it seemed a bit reminiscent of modern-day "gay best friend" tropes. I'll not dismiss the comfort and draw of such a friendship for a woman in Katherine's constrained social circle, where every woman was a potential rival. But since there are no indications that the real Huicke was gay (as Fremantle responsibly acknowledges in her notes) the pedantic historical accurist in me wishes that Katherine's GBF was a purely imagined character and not one adopted from real life. This is a minor quibble, however, and not one that affects the flow of the story.

Hampton Court kitchen, where a servant like Dot might have worked
The other major imagined character is that of Katherine's trusted servant, Dot. While the ultimate ramifications of Dot's loyalty to her mistress result in high drama that somewhat strains credulity, such things were nonetheless all too possible in Tudor England. Dot's eventful life provides a clear counterpoint to the circumscribed life that Katherine lived as queen.

It is Fremantle's ability to draw inspiration from Place and to then creatively people the empty halls of architectural witnesses to history with believable characters, both real and imagined, that make this book such fun to read. It is a strong debut novel, and I'm definitely looking forward to more from Elizabeth Fremantle!

If you are traveling in England, do take some time to tour Tudor-related sites such as Hampton Court Palace outside of London and Sudeley Castle in the Cotswold Hills.  The latter site is winding down a quincentennial commemoration of Katherine Parr's birth in 1512 that has featured personal artifacts,  including the items that Elizabeth Fremantle described which were found in Katherine's coffin; love letters to husband Thomas Seymour; her prayer book; and copies of her two major publications, Prayers or Meditations (1545) and Lamentations of a Sinner (1547).

Many thanks to Elizabeth Fremantle for graciously answering my questions!


I am pleased to offer a giveaway of a hard-back copy of Elizabeth Fremantle's book, Queen's Gambit, open to current US residents who are readers of this blog and my Facebook page The Historical Dilettante.


This giveaway was part of the Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop hosted by The Most Happy Reader blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment