Saturday 27 December 2014

#CBR6 Book 137: "The Queen's Fool" by Philippa Gregory

Page count. 514 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Young Jewish girl Hannah Verde flees the Inquisition in Spain with her father after her mother is burned for heresy. They travel through Europe to England, calling themselves "Green" and making a new life for themselves as loyal Christians. Hannah´s father has a printing press and soon his skilled work comes to the attention of scholars like John Dee. While John Dee is visiting their print shop with his patron, Lord Robert Dudley, Hannah has one of her visions, seeing an angel over their shoulder. Her abilities make her a priceless resource for the Dudleys, who takes her to court and presents her to young King Edward as a "Holy Fool". Of course, they also want her to swear fealty to them. If she refuses to spy for them, they will reveal her Jewish origins and both Hannah and her father will be executed.

Besotted with the charming Lord Robert, enticed by the chance at independence and glamorous life at court, Hannah would much rather be a Holy Fool than work in her father´s print shop and at sixteen marry the young doctor´s apprentice her family have picked for her. Her loyalties are tested when she is sent to spy on the Princess Mary for the Dudleys, but grows to admire and love the rightful heir to the throne, even though she suspects the Duke of Northumberland of having sinister plans for the royal succession. When Mary becomes Queen of England, she keeps Hannah with her, trusting her visions as a gift from God. She too needs Hannah to work as a spy, however, keeping watch over the Princess Elizabeth and making sure Protestant plots to put the Queen´s sister on the throne are not successful.

Throughout, Hannah´s father, and Daniel, her fiancee, are deeply worried about her and not at all happy that she is defying traditional female virtues by appearing in breeches and Fools´ motley, the pawn of powerful men and women with the power to destroy as easily as they can protect. As religious persecution in England becomes more aggressive, they flee to France. But Hannah feels unable to leave either the Queen she serves or the charismatic Princess she´s also grown so attached to.

The Mama´s Cannonball review of this book convinced me to give Philippa Gregory another chance. I wasn´t all too impressed with her writing in The Other Boleyn Girl and even less so in The Boleyn Inheritance. I suspect that may be because I did part of my history degree on the Tudors, with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as speciality fields. I´m more fuzzy on the details about little Edward and Mary I, however, and I know very little specific about the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, so this book was a lot more interesting to me. While I think it may be a bit anachronistic how independent Hannah wanted to be, how reluctant she was to conform to the traditional role of women of the time and how demanding she was of equality in her future marriage, Hannah did also serve a woman who ruled as Queen in her own right and a Princess who would go on to be the most fiercely independent woman in Europe. So as female role models go, it´s not surprising that she didn´t just want to conform, keep silent and be controlled like the chattel most Medieval women were treated as.

I totally understand the popularity of "sexy history" like Philippa Gregory´s novels, The Tudors, The Borgias and Reign and when I´m able to turn off the part of my brain who screams about inaccuracies, simplifications, anachronisms and the like, I am usually a big fan. There are after all the attractive actors, the sumptuous costumes and tons of exciting intrigue. This book was incredibly engrossing. I am worried that a lot of people take the heavily fictionalised accounts of these historical events as fact (although I have trouble seeing how anyone can do anything but suspend their disbelief when watching Reign), but at the same time, it´s good that the history doesn´t become entirely forgotten. Hopefully some are inspired to find out the truth behind the fiction. As my final book for the Alphabet soup challenge of this year, I´m glad I picked something so entertaining. I may give some of the other Gregory books from time periods I´m more hazy about a try over the course of 2015.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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