Review by Leanne Bibby
The wives of Henry VIII are persistently popular subjects of a certain category of historical novel authored primarily by women, recounting the personal stories of high-ranking women inhabiting dangerous royal courts. These six queens’ stories of ambition, sex, dangerous enemies and the threat of gruesome death are perennial, perhaps because tales of brave and tragic women resonate easily in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Henry’s last queen, Katherine Parr, is one of the least ‘novelised’ of the six. Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit reminds us why this is unfortunate: the book is a timely, absorbing addition to a now long-standing genre.
Katherine is most often remembered as having outlived her own Bluebeard, rather than as the subject-made-queen who inhabited an even more dangerous court than her better-known, executed predecessor, Anne Boleyn. Fremantle recreates that court with disarming detail. Her writing’s immediacy and materiality – Katherine’s wedding headdress is ‘as heavy as a bag of potatoes’ (149) and we are told of ‘the rotten stink of the pig bucket’ in the privy kitchen (152) – contributes to a genuinely unfamiliar, gritty and grim historical world.
Fremantle’s Katherine is highly intelligent and resilient, but with little choice but to be manipulated by powerful men. Her plight evokes Diana Wallace’s analysis of Jean Plaidy’s female-authored, biographical historical fictions and their concern with ‘captive women’, in which ‘the shaping forces of history are reduced to interpersonal relations, particularly familial and sexual relations’ (Wallace 137). Katherine Parr is indeed physically captive, but her activities as one of the first women to publish her own books are well-drawn, here. Fremantle’s is a hauntingly subtle, episodic portrayal of Katherine herself as a stifled but significant historical force: she considers, doubts, fears, writes and publishes anyway, risking the fate of her contemporary Anne Askew, tortured and burned for heresy.
The novel’s major events are slow to gather pace, but interest is more than sustained until then by the device of three main, separate points of view: of Katherine, her maid Dorothy ‘Dot’ Fownten and her physician Robert Huicke. Dot’s scenes are particularly powerful, showing the Reformation-era court and surrounding city ‘in negative’ by way of the servant girl’s conversational and sensitive interior monologues. Especially poignant is a scene in which Dot, literate thanks to her mistress, reflects that ‘there is something grave and powerful about written words and being able to read them’ (204).
Certain aspects of Katherine’s journey feel rushed-through, especially in the novel’s eventful latter section. Fremantle’s style is at times so closely observant of her characters that major historical players, such as Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, seem drawn a little too lightly and plainly; occasionally we see too little of their impact on Katherine. On one hand we might be grateful for the narrative’s restraint compared to the bloody set-pieces of TV period dramas, but on the other, sometimes, as Dot observes, ‘It is as if everything happens somewhere else, and all they can do is sit in these chambers and wonder about it’ (284).
Fremantle’s novel demonstrates memorably what makes Katherine a compelling subject for fiction. As a figment of the imagined and re-imagined Tudor era, she not only was a captive woman – she still is one. Avid readers know well ‘what happened’ to Katherine Parr, and so Queen’s Gambit addresses our need to consider the details of her life again and again, looking more closely each time, hopeful of seeing something of ourselves in her courage and singularity whilst we shudder at the brutal times she lived in, fearful of finding there any reflection of our own.
Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Reprint, 2008.