In 1554 Lady Jane Grey was executed on Tower Green, her last moments spent blindfolded fumbling on her knees for the block, watched by hard men, other men who may have secretly wept and a mother held up by a friend. It is quite possible that Queen Mary Tudor hadn’t wanted to kill her cousin, so young and used, but these are paranoid days and there are none more suspicious than these Tudor Queens.
Sisters of Treason tells the story of Jane’s two surviving younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, both of whom were to live lives spoiled beyond all understanding by the whim of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. It is the curse of the Greys that should either Queen die childless many would favour them as next in the royal line. Katherine is a beauty, married and divorced in quick succession during the brief supremacy of her sister’s controllers, and now she yearns for her handsome lost husband. To Katherine, Jane left a bible with a message to give her strength. Nothing, though, was left to Mary, the youngest and the wisest. Jane believed Mary needed no help. But Mary’s spine is twisted, her growth is stunted, and for that she has been given the role of Queen Mary’s monkey. Sat on Mary’s lap, stroked like a pet, the Queen thinks nothing of cursing the treachery of the Grey clan over the head of her tamed Grey monkey. All Katherine and Mary want is to be free of the court but Mary has to keep them close. They might have thought that matters would improve once Elizabeth came to the throne. But Mary Grey knows best. Nothing will change. Elizabeth might be even worse.
The opening chapter of Sisters of Treason is such a powerful draw into the novel. It gives us the execution of Lady Jane Grey through the experience of her mother Frances and her friend Levina, an accomplished painter of miniatures. It’s not often I start a novel with misty eyes, normally it takes time to give an author your trust, but with Sisters of Treason we are instantly taken to the heart of the drama, to the event that hangs like a black curtain over the rest of the novel and over the lives of Jane’s sisters. Frances is to find love in a second marriage, to a household servant with no illusions of power, and it’s easy to see why her daughters would envy her. But Katherine and Mary are watched evermore, kept from potential suitors, with the aim of keeping them childless, like the Queens who can’t let them out of their sight.
The novel is told in present tense throughout but from changing perspectives. While Levina is featured in third person chapters, events in Katherine and Mary’s lives are told in the first person by the sisters themselves. While this could be confusing and distancing in other hands, ELizabeth Fremantle masters this style, giving us in the most immediate way the contrasting experiences of beautiful, love-seeking Katherine and the physically small and wisely aware Mary. Both voices are very different and their characters also contrast in the paintings that Levina does of each. Katherine is a likeable girl, fragile in some ways although probably stronger than she thinks she is, but Mary Grey, for me, is the heart of Sisters of Treason. She understands better than anyone what is going on at the courts of Mary and Elizabeth, she is deeply sympathetic and is prepared to take risks. And she does.
Much of Katherine’s tale is a love story. Her romance with Edward Seymour provides the light for the novel. In its early days, I found myself losing a little bit of patience with the love-stricken Katherine, but as the story develops and we see just how much danger Katherine is prepared to tempt in order to have a marriage of her own making that she is allowed to keep it becomes a truly powerful, poignant tale – a genuine love story, all the more remarkable because it’s a true story. While Mary’s story is the most fascinating, privy as she is to many of the plots, conspiracies and secrets that coloured the courts of the Tudor Queens, and it too features its own dangerous love story, it is Katherine’s tale that had me crying my eyes out.
Levina’s narrative provides the historical context to the novel, just as she provides motherly comfort to the Grey sisters. Dabbling on the fringes of conspiracy, Levina gives us a taste of the dangers while also holding the stories of Katherine and Mary Grey together. It also contributes to the portrait of the Tudor Queens, the monstrous and corrupt Mary and Elizabeth. Just think of Mary Grey on the lap of Mary Tudor, petted like a dog. I can’t think of any other image that brings Mary Tudor alive like that one.
Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel about Henry VIII’s last Queen and widow Katherine Parr, was one of my top reads of 2013. It’s no easy task to have to follow a book like that. However, Elizabeth Fremantle has, I believe, surpassed it. The complicated structure with its different perspectives is confidently accomplished while preserving the emotional response of the reader to these characters. The story of the three Grey sisters is one of the most tragic of the Tudor period and it deserves the pen of a fine writer. Elizabeth Fremantle is such a writer. The Tudor period is not my favourite but in Sisters of Treason we are given a less familiar story but one that is made unforgettable.
The hardback finishes with a full and very useful cast of characters which gives a paragraph on each of the personalities who walk through these pages.