Eliza Rose | Lucy Worsley | 2016 | Bloomsbury | 354p | Bought copy | Buy the book
When Elizabeth (Eliza Rose) Camperdowne turns twelve years old and stands in front of her father, the formidable Baron of Stone, she knows that her adult life is about to begin. Eliza is told that she is to marry the Earl of Westmorland’s son. She is the daughter of a noble house. Duty is paramount! Eliza’s mother died when she was just four and so her Aunt Margaret is the one to provide the words of advice while her maid Henny is the one with the comfort. Eliza does what she’s told.
But even the best laid plans have a habit of going wrong – Eliza swears it wasn’t her fault – and the marriage comes to nothing. Touched by the hint of scandal, Eliza is sent to Trumpton Hall, the home of the Duchess of Northumberland, where she and lots of other noble young ladies will be trained to be maids at court. With Eliza will go her cousin, Katherine Howard. Who knows? In time, they may even be sent to court to serve Henry VIII’s new Queen, Anne of Cleves. At court, they’ll have their pick of rich, noble husbands.
Lucy Worsley, royal palaces curator, has the gift of bringing history to life, through re-enactment and accessible scrutiny and mostly through fabulous documentaries on BBC4. I was so pleased to hear that Lucy had written a debut historical fiction novel for young readers and was lucky enough to go along to her talk all about it at the Oxford Literary Festival this spring. I’d bought the book the day before and by the time I queued to get Lucy to sign it, it was two thirds read. Addictive, engrossing, charming, packed with glorious Tudor detail, I was hooked on Eliza Rose, book and character, from the very first page.
The story of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s excitable and unfortunate fifth wife (and Hampton Court’s most famous ghost), is a familiar tale to many of us and now Lucy has given a new generation of potential history addicts an inspirational gift – a thoroughly entertaining and informative story about Katherine’s teenage years (not that she had many other years to write about). Katherine is/was a real person, as are the majority of the other people in the novel, and the nitty gritty detail about life at the Tudor court and in general at this time is vividly, fascinatingly presented, but Eliza is fictional. She still feels just as real, in a novel singing with historical authenticity. Eliza gives us access to all areas. She is an eye witness account to everything, including the King, but she also gives Lucy Worsley the chance to play with history and create another charming story within it.
Katherine Howard’s life was tragic and Lucy Worsley doesn’t spare her readers. We’re pulled through the emotional hedge as Katherine heads towards her fate and I wept through the final inevitable moments. This was also a coarse, sex-drenched court for all its splendid fabrics, feasts and monkeys, and we’re made well aware of this. Not in graphic detail by any means but there can be no doubt as to what went on.
Many of the figures here are beautifully drawn, especially Anne of Cleves (I loved her, I really did) and Henry’s jester. Katherine herself is a wayward girl, usually, ultimately, her own worst enemy, but she is just that – a girl – and who wouldn’t pity her? Eliza is a gem from start to finish. While the ending for Eliza didn’t feel quite right or believable enough to me, Eliza Rose is undoubtedly an extremely impressive debut novel from an author who obviously knows her stuff, writes brilliantly and with wit, and knows how to use that knowledge.
I grew up on the historical fiction of Jean Plaidy. I read every single one of her novels as a teenager and they played a crucial part in developing and inspiring my deep, deep love of history. My favourite Jean Plaidy novel is Murder Most Royal, Plaidy’s own account of the lives of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. I can’t tell you how many times I read it and there are lines and moments in it that I can still remember. All these years later we have a new novel about Katherine Howard, also aimed at younger readers, and I can see no reason why Lucy Worsley can’t inspire a whole new generation of readers, just as Jean Plaidy inspired me. I must also say, though, that Eliza Rose isn’t just for young readers. I’m a bit older than that and I adored it. More, please!