Katherine Parr had the distinction of outliving her husband Henry VIII. This remarkable – and most definitely not guaranteed at the time – fact means that she is among historical fiction’s more neglected Tudor wives. Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and even Katherine of Aragon are difficult to compete with. This is a pity for at least two reasons: firstly, I was named after Katherine (or Katharine) Parr so I’m unashamedly biased and, secondly, she was a remarkable woman in her own right. Not only did she manage to outfox and outlive a man who almost certainly wanted to cut her head off at least once, Katherine also had an intellectual and religious curiosity that made her stand out in those days, among women and among reformers. She was the first Queen of England to publish her own writings. She finally managed to make her own marriage choice (her fourth) after having been widowed for the third time. Henry VIII’s death left her free to marry Thomas Seymour, uncle to the new king and chief among the court’s peacocks.
In Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle has taken on this extraordinary figure who lived more fully in her fewer than forty years than most women of her age and I think she has done Katherine Parr proud.The novel has an intriguing manner to it. Narrated in the present tense, we are placed very much at the heart of the action. Although told in the third person, we are permitted inside the most private thoughts of Katherine. We witness, initially, her grief and guilt as her second husband Lord Latymer dies and her efforts to bring out of herself her grief-stricken and traumatised stepdaughter Meg Neville. In the background even at this early stage is religion – not the nature of one’s beliefs but what religion makes men do in its name. In this case we learn of something terrible that happened to the women of our novel during the Pilgrimage of Grace, when the Catholics of the north rose up against the reforms of Henry VIII and Cromwell.
We are able to see a little further than even Katherine can because her story is shared with that of her most faithful servant Dot. And Dot is also the confidante of young Meg. She knows more than Katherine about certain elements of Meg’s story while Dot remains in the dark about the fears in Katherine’s mind. Interestingly, as the novel progresses, Dot learns to read and through this she also becomes aware of some of the wider issues facing Katherine. So many words were committed to paper in secrecy, in heresy and in treason.
This dual narrative takes us through Katherine’s life from the death of her husband Lord Latymer and through her courting by Henry VIII and beyond their marriage. The core of Queen’s Gambit has to be the union with the old, obese, diseased and pus-dripping king. Here is a monstrous ogre, violent in the night, guilt ridden in the morning but progressively jealous and angry as the marriage continues further than his attention span allows. Henry is a man who loves deeply but briefly and hates unfailingly. We marvel at Katherine’s courage, even her compassion, and swallow our bile at what she has to endure.
Henry is a memorable figure in Queen’s Gambit. This is no Hollywood Henry VIII. He’s horrifying. Other figures stand out too, most of them from the royal family and especially the royal princesses (or bastards as Henry liked to think of them) Mary and Elizabeth. These are complex young women, in need of a mother all the more because of their father. They aren’t static. They change under Katherine’s friendship but not always for the best.Dot is perhaps inevitably a less interesting figure but her perspective is a useful one, not least for giving us a glimpse of what life was like at court, providing an alternative opinion of the behaviour of some of the characters in that court, especially Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth, much of which was intended to deceive. It’s good to know Katherine (and Meg) has such a friend.
The immediacy of the present tense narrative and the urgency of the prose gives Queen’s Gambit a modern feel. I liked this a great deal. It gave a familiar story a sharp edge and a sense that these events really did happen, they were this frightening and, even though history tells us what happened, there is still a feeling of tension underlying the events, reminding us that it could have ended so differently.
It’s time again to visit Sudeley Castle and pay my respects to a figure who has intrigued me my entire life. Thanks to Queen’s Gambit, this interest has been refreshed and invigorated.