Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review: Queen's Gambit

Queen’s Gambit
By Elizabeth Fremantle
Simon & Schuster, reprint May 2014

About the Book

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.

My Review

Elizabeth Fremantle’s debut novel focuses on Katherine Parr (Kit), the only of Henry VIII’s wives to escape the marriage without being divorced, abandoned, and/or beheaded. Fremantle tells Kit’s story from various perspectives: through the eyes of Kit herself, her faithful servant Dot, and one of the king’s physicians Dr. Robert Huicke, a confidant of hers. Fremantle’s Kit is a woman of great fortitude, loyalty, intelligence, and sense of duty. The story covers the death of Kit’s second husband, Lord Latymer, her marriage to the king, and her death as the wife of Thomas Seymour.

Heartbroken when the king’s eye falls on her as his next queen, she makes the best of a terrible situation, taming her natural intelligence and vivacity to be the loyal wife and nursemaid of a cantankerous old tyrant. She plays the games of court politics well, succeeding at a high-stakes game for her life and brilliantly outmaneuvering her Catholic enemies who would have her tried and executed like the others before her.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the situation through the eyes of Kit’s loyal servants, Dot and Huicke. Fremantle tells their stories as she weaves Kit’s tale, demonstrating Kit’s inner facets from others’ points of view. She was obviously a caring woman, bending over backwards to ensure the well being of her stepchildren. She was also a formidable and crafty opponent, as her enemies eventually discovered.

Fremantle attempts to make a case for Kit’s attraction to Thomas Seymour and handles the situation as well as she possibly could, but even this account seems somewhat forced. It makes sense that a woman so devoid of love and passion in her life would rush toward any chance of it once she had the opportunity, but Seymour is such a shady character and a questionable choice for a woman always known to be thoughtful and level headed that their romance hardly makes sense. From everything historians have told us, this is exactly what happened, but all accounts I have read have made this relationship seem forced and totally out of character for the queen. Perhaps that’s because it really was.

There is nothing surprising or terribly revealing in this story, but it is a faithful tribute to an often-overlooked figure in Tudor history. I did like Fremantle’s inclusion of Kit’s stepdaughter Meg Neville, her deep friendship with Dr. Huicke, the time spent on Kit’s interests in reading and writing, and her struggles with her faith, especially material that occurs before the book’s opening and reveals a lot about Kit’s current beliefs. Queen’s Gambit is a revealing portrait of a strong historical figure. I am interested to see which subject Fremantle will choose next.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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